By Paul Newberry
ATLANTA (AP) The Kentucky freshmen donned their championship caps, cut down the nets and hopped around like this something new to them.
Which, of course, it was.
For the Wildcats, though, this was just business as usual at the Southeastern Conference tournament.
Brandon Knight scored 17 points, Darius Miller hit two crucial 3-pointers and No. 15 Kentucky cruised to another SEC title, routing regular-season champion Florida 70-54 on Sunday.
“The way my team is playing right now, let’s have it! Come on! Bring it!” coach John Calipari said of the NCAA tournament. “This is a very smart team. The basketball sense of this team, the savvy.”
The 12th-ranked Gators (26-7) had a miserable day shooting, especially guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker. They combined to go 7 of 26 from the field, their woes epitomized in the closing minutes when they put up back-to-back airballs trying desperately to bring Florida back.
Kentucky (25-8) streaked into the NCAAs with its sixth straight win, second straight SEC tourney crown and 27th title overall – more than every other school combined.
Florida trailed at halftime for the third straight game. The Gators came back against Tennessee and Vanderbilt, but they were doomed when Kentucky pushed it out to a 14-point lead with just over 9 minutes remaining on consecutive 3s by Miller, who was named tournament MVP.
“I’ve said all along Darius Miller had the ability and the skill to be the best player in this league,” Calipari said. “This week, obviously, he was. I’m very proud of him.”
Boynton scored 10 points, the only Florida player in double figures. But he was just 4 of 16 from the field, which pretty much summed up what kind of day it was for the Gators.
They shot 39 percent (22 of 57), matched their second-lowest scoring game of the season and almost took their worst loss, barely getting in under a 93-75 defeat to Ohio State back in November. This is a team that lives by the jump shot. When those shots didn’t fall, they were dead.
“Our defense wasn’t bad,” coach Billy Donovan said. “It was that we were so bad on offense. We were not physical enough to get fouled.”
But hand it to Kentucky, a team that rebuilt around three freshmen and a very thin roster after John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe bolted to the NBA after only one season in Lexington.
Even with one of those newcomers, Doron Lamb, plagued by a sprained ankle, the Wildcats appear to be a team that is all grown up at the most important time of year. They have won eight of nine – the only loss in that stretch an overtime setback at Arkansas – and bolstered their stock heading into the NCAAs.
Miller hit 6 of 8 shots, grabbed six rebounds and finished with 15 points. Freshman Terrence Jones chipped in with 16 points. And Knight, the third youngster, ran the show with four assists and capped the big win with a thunderous dunk in the final minute.
Hardly looking like a team with so much youth, Kentucky turned it over just six times. Florida had 14 turnovers, and no one stepped up as the game got away. The ultra-quick Walker tried putting up jumpers and penetrating the lane, not having much success at either. He shot just 3 of 10 and had eight points.
Chandler Parsons added to the woes with a 4-of-12 performance to finish with nine points.
“At times we were disconnected,” Parsons said. “We were definitely tired, but we can’t use that as an excuse. They had played as many games as we had.”
The shooting problems carried over to the free throw line, where the Gators made just 3 of 8 – also a troubling sign of how much they struggled to establish the inside game.
Compare that with Kentucky, which made 24 of 29.
“This game was won at the free throw line,” Donovan said. “We were down five (at the half) and they had shot 14 free throws to one. One free throw in the half! They did a good job of attacking the basket and finding a way to get fouled.”
Lamb sprained his left ankle in the closing minutes of a semifinal victory over Alabama. He went through pregame warmups, then started out on the bench, with DeAndre Liggins taking his place in the lineup.
The freshman checked in just ahead of the second TV timeout and seemed to move around without much problem, though he wasn’t a major factor in the game. He played 23 minutes and scored six points.
Still, Lamb just playing was a big relief to Kentucky fans who made up the bulk of the crowd in “Catlanta,” giving the Wildcats a home-court advantage a long way from Rupp Arena. A loud cheer went up when he checked into the game, and he’ll be back in the lineup for Kentucky’s first NCAA game.
“It was a slight sprain,” Calipari said. “I know it looked like he got shot by a sniper when he went down.”
That’s important for Kentucky, which basically uses a six-man rotation. Perhaps looking to stretch his bench, Calipari gave early playing time to little-used junior Eloy Vargas, who had four rebounds, two points and a steal in 10 solid minutes.
Now, it’s on to the tournament that really matters.
“For us to play that well against a team like that? That gives us confidence,” Miller said.
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