Giddy gators dance early

What makes this victory so sweet? That it came against perennial tournament winner Kentucky.

Published March 14, 2005

GAINESVILLE - From now on, when anyone lists the SEC basketball tournament champions, Florida will be among them.

After 41 years of futility, the Gators ended their SEC drought in grand fashion Sunday afternoon.

Florida dominated Kentucky, the premier team in the league, 70-53 in front of 24,408 at the Georgia Dome.

The win came one year after Kentucky handed Florida an 89-73 loss in the title game. Flanked by a small crowd of supporters, the Gators basked in the spotlight for nearly 30 minutes after the game, cutting down the nets on both ends of the arena.

Next up, the NCAA Tournament, where the Gators drew a No.4 seed and will face No.13-seeded Ohio on Friday in Nashville.

It was the worst loss in a championship game for the Wildcats (25-5), which also lost out on a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and suffered its second loss to the Gators in eight days.

"It means a lot because it was Kentucky," said Florida coach Billy Donovan, a former UK assistant. "They refer to this tournament as the Kentucky Invitational tournament. Our guys were very driven and motivated to play against what everybody perceives to be the best team in the league."

The Wildcats said they had something to prove after last week's loss, but it was the Gators who came out like a team on a mission.

Florida had a 12-point lead early in the first half, aided by a dominating performance on the glass. Midway through the first half, Florida was outrebounding Kentucky 16-4, had nine offensive rebounds and seven second-chance points.

"We did a poor job boxing out and that's something that's been hurting us all year," Kentucky senior Chuck Hayes said. "It's been our Achilles' heel."

The Gators (23-7) led 34-27 at halftime, but Kentucky put together a 15-1 run in the second half, taking a 44-40 lead with 11:53 left.

"I told them that they needed to fight," Donovan said about a timeout during Kentucky's run. "I told them we needed to provide opportunities for ourselves. I wanted to get them focused on why Kentucky was making the run, because our turnovers were leading to fastbreaks and easy points."

The Gators responded with a 21-2 run led by junior guard Matt Walsh, who had 11 points (three 3-pointers) during the run. When freshman Corey Brewer grabbed a rebound, went the length of the court and hit a layup with 4:31 to play, Florida led 61-46 and had sealed the win.

"This has been a long time coming," said Walsh, who had a game-high 26 points and was named the tournament MVP. "We've had some really tough losses to Kentucky in the past. It just feels so good to go out and beat Kentucky."

Florida outrebounded Kentucky 48-31 and held the Wildcats to 0-for-11 from 3-point range in the second half (2-of-19 for the game). Junior guard Anthony Roberson had 10 points, and senior forward David Lee had nine points and a career-high-tying 17 rebounds. Kentucky forward Kelenna Azubuike had a team-high 17.

As they posed for photos with the championship trophy, the Gators said they would enjoy the historic victory Sunday, then put it aside and get ready for the NCAA Tournament. Whatever happens, Lee knows he's leaving with a championship ring, and taking it from Kentucky, he said, makes it even better.

"I think it goes back to that thing to be the best, you've got to beat the best," he said. "They won the SEC regular-season title this year, they were deserving of the No.1 seed and we had to go beat them. They had tradition, but tradition didn't help them tonight."

And hopefully, players said, a little respect.

"The tables were reversed this year and it was finally our turn," Roberson said. "We beat Kentucky twice this year and Kentucky had more respect than ever for us when we walked on that court. They can say anything they want in the media, when we stepped on that court there was a respect factor and you can tell how they played against us."