ATLANTA — Scottie Wilbekin missed the front half of a pair of free throws. After grabbing the rebound, so did Dorian Finney-Smith.
Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison pulled down the board, and Wildcats coach John Calipari took a quick timeout. After botching two chances to put the Southeastern Conference Championship on ice, the Gators (33-2, 18-0 SEC), led by Wilbekin, had one more possession to play defense.
Fourteen seconds later, Wilbekin came up with the loose ball that secured No. 1 seed Florida’s 61-60 win over No. 2 seed Kentucky to capture it’s fourth SEC Championship in front of 21,921 at the Georgia Dome.
UK’s James Young looked to take a handoff from Harrison and drive the lane, but Wilbekin stepped into the alley, and Young fell down and lost the ball. Time ran out as a scrum ensued to recover it.
Later Sunday, Florida was dubbed the top seed in the NCAA tournament.
“I was just trying to get to the basket,” Young said. “I just took too much of a wide step and just slipped.”
Those missed free throws might have condemned this Gator team years ago, Florida coach Billy Donovan said afterward. Not so, anymore.
Donovan starts four seniors who have won 55 regular season SEC games in their tenure. They’ve won the conference regular season title for two straight years. Florida is the first major-conference team to post a perfect league schedule since 1976.
But earlier in the class of 2014’s career, those miscues at the foul line might have spelled disaster. Donovan said time and experience has taught Wilbekin and fellow seniors Patric Young, Will Yeguete and Casey Prather to move on.
“That was a problem for them,” he said. “That's where I think we have gotten better is we're a better focused team moving past runs, adversity, mistakes, challenges, things not going our way.”
Kentucky (24-10, 12-6 SEC) never led Florida and trailed by as many as 16 early in the second half.
The Wildcats launched a 14-0 run to draw within one of Florida with just outside of six minutes to play. But a 3-pointer from UF guard Michael Frazier II cut off the rally, and Wilbekin added a layup for good measure.
James Young canned a 3 from the wing with a minute and a half left to cut the lead back down.
That’s when the ’Cats started fouling to put Wilbekin, then Finney-Smith to the line, where the Gators shot 41 percent as a team. Both missed, and Kentucky failed to get a shot off thanks to stifling Gator defense.
“I switched on to Harrison, and I just wanted to play the best defense I could without fouling and putting him to the line,” Wilbekin said. “Will (Yeguete) did a good job of just telling us next play, because obviously we wanted to make those free throws, but we just focused on getting a defensive stop.”
UK shot just 35 percent for the game. Freshman forward Julius Randle, who tallied double-doubles in back-to-back tournament games Friday and Saturday, was held to four points and seven rebounds.
Aaron Harrison scored a game-high 16 points for Kentucky on 6-of-17 shooting.
“For us to shoot 35 percent, folks, and be a second away from winning the conference championship, is amazing,” Calipari said. “It means we really showed a lot of fight.”
UK’s Harrison and Randle were named to the SEC all-tournament team.
Florida’s Frazier and Patric Young each scored 14 points and grabbed five rebounds. Both were also named to the all-tournament squad. Wilbekin, the conference player of the year, was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
Kentucky was given a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament after losing three of its last four regular season games. The ’Cats will face No. 9 seed Kansas State on Friday.
“Considering that the last games of our regular season and then coming in here, we were a brand-new team,” said Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who posted 10 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks. “I think that building off that going into the NCAA tournament is going to be good for us.”
Florida, riding a 26-game win streak, will face either Albany or Mount St. Mary’s. Those two will have a play-in game on Tuesday for the South region’s No. 16 seed.
Tennessee was the only other SEC team to make the tournament, earning a No. 11 seed play-in in the Midwest region. The Volunteers will play Iowa on Tuesday.