Florida, Kentucky survive fights to reach SEC conference title game

Saturday March 15th, 2014

 Jarnell Stokes; Casey Prather Tennessee made Florida earn its trip to the SEC tournament final, keeping the game close. ( Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The SEC's championship matchup is set. After tough battles between the conference's top four seeds on Saturday, No. 1 Florida will meet 2-seed Kentucky in Sunday's SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.

No. 1 Florida 56, No. 4 Tennessee 49: Florida will play for an SEC title on Sunday, but despite what the Gators' current 25-game win streak says, coach Billy Donovan's crew needed every bit of effort to reach the conference tournament's final day. Top-ranked Florida fought back from a 10-point first-half deficit and stiff-armed a feisty Tennessee squad to win Saturday's SEC semifinal game.

This Florida team dropped Missouri in Friday's quarterfinals by 23 points, but the Vols stood toe-to-toe with the streaking Gators for all 40 minutes. Tennessee entered the second half holding a seven-point lead, and then the Gators shot off a 10-2 run to take the lead after intermission. With 8:50 to play Michael Frazier II knocked down a trey to give Florida a 45-43 lead.

The Vols remained alive, however, though they hit a speed bump with fewer than five minutes left in the game. Officials called a foul on UT forward Jeronne Maymon, and when Maymon questioned the call, referee Pat Adams issued a technical to Maymon. That foul sent Maymon to the bench with his fifth foul, but it also marked a four-point swing as Florida sunk all four free throws for a 49-45 lead.

Officials also called a flagrant foul on UT guard Antonio Barton with 1:21 left on a foul on Casey Prather, who hit both free throws. The Vols wouldn't score again, having hit only five shots alongside 11 turnovers in the second half.

Tennessee entered the SEC Tournament as a bubble team but likely left with a favorable shot at an NCAA bid. Florida, however, is the team on a tear right now, and even with a loss in Sunday's SEC title game, the Gators look like prime candidates for the NCAA's overall No. 1 seed when brackets are unveiled.

No. 2 Kentucky 70, No. 3 Georgia 58: Kentucky continued to play good basketball at the right point in the season by holding off 3-seed Georgia on Saturday.

Georgia made things interesting early in the second half when Kenny Gaines dropped in a layup and forced a timeout from Wildcats coach John Calipari with the Bulldogs only down two, 41-39. But Kentucky asserted itself again and built the lead to 10 by the 12-minute mark when James Young tipped in a missed Aaron Harrison jumper, the biggest Wildcat lead of the game up to that point. Thanks in part to a 36-22 rebounding advantage on the afternoon, Kentucky didn't let up on the gas in the final moments of the second half. Kentucky has been arguably one of the season's most disappointing programs. A preseason No. 1 ranking gradually evolved into a 22-9 season, with four of those losses coming over the last month. But performances on Saturday by Andrew and Aaron Harrison (34 combined points) and Julius Randle (a double-double of 12 points and 11 boards) are why this roster is rolling as it heads into Sunday's title-game matchup with Florida. Coach Cal's crew seems to have figured out its late-season troubles, and the coach better hope that's the case with the Gators' tenacious defense and efficient offense threatening for the conference crown.

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