LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky faces a difficult road toward an NCAA tournament bid, but the Wildcats rallied past No. 11 Florida 61-57 Saturday to help their cause with the committee.
The Gators looked ready to hand a final blow to the Wildcats' postseason hopes after a 19-5 run provided a 57-50 lead with 7½ minutes remaining. Kentucky responded by scoring the final 11 points of the game, boosting the Wildcats' NCAA prospects.
The defending national champions (21-10, 12-6) need at least another win in next week's Southeastern Conference tournament to solidify their tournament chances, but beating Florida clinched the No. 2 seed.
"They swam like heck," said Kentucky coach John Calipari, who used terms such as "sink or swim" and "do or die" to describe his team's chances on Friday. "In the last seven minutes, when it was in doubt, they swam like heck. When you're going to drown, you want to die, don't swim. If you want to live, the life raft is over there, you've got to swim to it.
"As a matter of fact, it's kind of breezing away from you, so you're going to have to swim real hard, and they did."
Kentucky's win ended a two-game losing streak and increased the prospect that the Wildcats needed to win the SEC tournament in Nashville to secure a bid. The Wildcats came away with their second win against a Top-25 opponent — they also beat then-No. 16 Mississippi — and followed up another quality win against Missouri two weeks ago.
Julius Mays' two free throws with 9.4 seconds remaining capped Kentucky's comeback, a fitting end for the fifth-year senior transfer playing his final regular season game for the Wildcats. He finished with 13 points.
"I have had big moments in my college career, but that one was probably my biggest one because we needed that win more than anything to keep our hopes alive," said Mays, honored before the game along with senior guard Twany Beckham. "I told coach when we went into that timeout that I wanted the ball. He didn't draw the play the way I ran it, but I wanted that ball and I wanted to shoot those free throws."
Archie Goodwin's nine second-half points set the stage for Kentucky's rally. With the Wildcats trailing 57-50, the freshman scored five straight points and Ryan Harrow (13 points) added two free throws to tie the game.
"I knew from the get-go that we were going to be able to do that," Goodwin said. "When we played against Missouri, we were down 10 at one point and we came back and won the game. It was just another one of those type moments where we got down, but we just had to fight and withstand that run. And we did."
Freshman center Willie Cauley-Stein, playing with four fouls, followed by taking a charge from Erik Murphy with 3:15 left. He added a free throw 12 seconds later for the lead and grabbed a key rebound with 53 seconds left leading to a free throw by Goodwin before Mays sealed it at the foul line.
Alex Poythress added nine points and 12 rebounds and Cauley-Stein had eight boards and six points after a scoreless first half.
Murphy's 17 points led Florida (24-6, 14-4), which missed its final 11 shots and was 22 of 55 overall from the field (40 percent).
"Everybody had some good shots that they could have made and we just missed them," Murphy said. "They stopped us, played defense and caused some misses. That's what happens."
Kentucky's urgency was obvious in the most important of "one-game seasons" Calipari says his team will experience during the conference tournament. Players were fully engaged in a pregame ceremony honoring seniors Mays and injured guard Twany Beckham, while the Rupp Arena crowd of 24,294 did its part to add more energy to the Kentucky team.
Having clinched their second outright SEC title in three years, the Gators wanted to fine-tune their game for next week's conference tournament in Nashville. Florida's only question mark was a two-game road losing streak coming into Rupp Arena, where it hasn't won since 2007. Then there was the matter of dealing with a Kentucky squad desperate to break its skid and earn the quality win needed for its NCAA tournament resume.
The Wildcats' chances didn't look good after consecutive road losses at Arkansas and Georgia quickly eroded the optimism from the preceding three-game winning streak. Then came the Wildcats' 69-52 loss at Florida on Feb. 12, the game in which they also lost Nerlens Noel to a season-ending knee injury.
The team is now 4-3 without the freshman in the lineup.
"I think they are good enough talent-wise to play with anybody," Florida coach Billy Donovan said of the Wildcats. "Can they beat anybody? Absolutely, they are talented and gifted enough. But I think they're still learning to play without Nerlens."
Kentucky began strong, using hustle and good shooting to build an 11-2 lead highlighted by two baskets by Harrow. But four missed four shots and three turnovers by Kentucky over the next 5:01 allowed the Gators to tie as Murphy scored five points and Mike Rosario and Patric Young added baskets. From there it
became a tense, back-and-forth game defined by small runs culminating in a 31-all tie at the break.
Kentucky led 45-38 with 14:13 remaining but Cauley-Stein went to the bench with his fourth foul less than a minute later. Florida reeled off eight points for the lead, igniting a 19-5 run over 6:02 for its last lead.