ATLANTA (AP) - Top-ranked Florida capped a perfect run through the Southeastern Conference when Kentucky failed to get off a shot on its final possession, allowing the Gators to escape with a 61-60 victory in the league championship game Sunday.
Florida (32-2) built a 16-point lead early in the second half, but Kentucky nearly pulled off an improbable comeback to hand the Gators their first loss since early December. Two missed free throws gave the Wildcats (24-10) a final possession, but James Young slipped trying to drive into the lane.
The ball squirted loose, and the horn sounded while Florida's Scottie Wilbekin and Kentucky's Andrew Harrison dived for it. A giddy Wilbekin popped up and sprinted toward the Gators bench in celebration. Harrison rolled over with the ball, then put his hands over his face in anguish.
The Gators extended their school-record winning streak to 26 games and earned the No. 1 overall seed when the NCAA pairings were announced shortly after their SEC celebration. They will face the winner of a First Four game between Albany and Mount St. Mary's on Thursday.
Patric Young and Michael Frazier II led Florida with 14 points apiece, while tournament MVP Wilbekin and Casey Prather had 11 each.
Florida led 40-30 at halftime and scored the first six points of the second half for its biggest lead. But Kentucky used a 14-0 run to close within a point with just over 6 minutes remaining. It was a nail-biter the rest of the way, the Wildcats coming oh-so-close to beating the first team to go 18-0 in SEC play during the regular season.
First, Andrew Harrison drove down the middle of the lane and put up a running jumper with 33 seconds remaining. The shot clanked off the rim and Dorian Finney-Smith grabbed the rebound for the Gators.
Kentucky was forced to foul three times to get Florida into the bonus. With 23 seconds left, Wilbekin missed the front end of a 1-and-1, but Finney-Smith came up with another huge rebound and was quickly fouled by the Wildcats. Finney-Smith missed the front end, too, giving Kentucky a chance to win it.
Coming out of a timeout, the Wildcats didn't even get off a shot. Andrew Harrison dribbled the clock down at the top of the key, then dished off to Young on the right wing. He tried to cut into the lane, bumped a Florida player and tumbled to the court.
That was it. Florida ran off the court with its first conference tournament title since 2007, when the Gators went on to capture the second of consecutive national titles. They had lost in the tournament final two of the last three years.
Kentucky was denied its 28th tournament championship. The Wildcats have more titles than all the other SEC schools combined.
Florida started the game quickly and led the entire way. Frazier sparked the Gators right off the opening tip with consecutive 3s, prompting Kentucky coach John Calipari to call a timeout barely a minute into the game.
The Gators pushed the margin as high as 14 points in the first half and simply looked the more confident, aggressive team. The Florida seniors - Wilbekin, Young, Prather and Will Yeguete - made Kentucky's touted freshmen appear tentative and unsure of exactly how to cope with the Gators' relentlessness at the defensive end.
Plus, Florida was stroking it from beyond the 3-point stripe, knocking down 6 of 13 before halftime. Wilbekin scored all nine of his points from long range, while Frazier went 3 of 4 from long range.
The Wildcats, on the other hand, missed their five attempts from outside the arc, a big reason the Gators went to the locker room up by 10 points.
But Kentucky turned things around after the break, doing a better job defensively and taking advantage of Florida's struggles at the free throw line. The Gators made only 7 of 17 free throws, and the misses at the end nearly cost them a loss heading into the NCAA tournament.
Florida beat the Wildcats for the third time this season, the first two not even close. The Gators won 69-59 in Lexington and closed the regular season with an 84-65 rout at home.
The SEC tournament was held for the 11th and final time at the 70,000-seat Georgia Dome. It will move to Nashville, Tenn., nine of the next 11 years, while the dome is scheduled for demolition after the NFL's Atlanta Falcons move into a new retractable roof stadium in 2017.