The Gators led 54-39 following a dunk by Patric Young with 11:03 remaining and appeared poised to run away from the young Wildcats.
If not for a poor free-throw shooting and the shot blocking of Kentucky 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, the nation’s top-ranked team already would have. But Kentucky went on a 14-0 run, highlighted by seven point from freshman guard Aaron Harrison, to set the stage for a scintillating finish in front of 21,021 fans in the Georgia Dome.
The Wildcats had the ball following a timeout with 14 seconds left in the game, but freshman guard James Young slipped and fumbled the ball away on a wing curl to end the game.
“I give our guys credit for giving a great stop at the end of the game,” UF coach Billy Donovan said.
Winner of 26 straight games, the Gators are now 15-2 in games decided by single digits this season. Last season, the Gators were 0-6 and squandered a 12-point lead during the second half of the SEC Tournament title game to Ole Miss.
The Gators (32-2) nearly gave away this one to Wildcats (24-10).
With Cauley-Stein patrolling the paint (five blocks, 11 rebounds), UF went nearly five minutes without a basket until sophomore shooting guard Michael Frazier II hit a 3-point with 6:16 remaining. Wilbekin followed with a layup to give UF a 59-53 lead.
But a layup by Harrison and 3-pointer by Young made it 61-60 with 1:30 to go.
The Gators had a chance for some breathing room, but missed the front ends of two one-and-one situations during the final 23 seconds - first Scottie Wilbekin followed by Dorian Finney-Smith, who rebounded Wilbekin’s miss.
The Gators finished the game 7 of 17 from the foul line, while Kentucky hit 21 of 26 free throws.
“We just try to fight through any adversity we can as a team, because we are a team,” Wilbekin said.
The winning formula Sunday was the same as it has been much of the season.
Frazier outside, Young inside, Wilbekin and the Gators’ defense everywhere.
Kentucky finished 18 of 51 (35.3 percent) from the floor and was 3 of 11 from 3-point range.
Frazier and Young earned spots on all-tournament team, while Wilbekin was named tournament most valuable player.
Frazier opened the game 4 of 5, including three 3-pointers, to help the Gators stake an early lead. After sitting out the first six minutes of the first half with foul trouble, Young scored nine of his team’s first 14 points to open the second half.
Frazier and Young led the Gators with 14 points each against Kentucky.
Wilbekin finished with 11 points, six assists and two steals against the Wildcats, giving him 40 points, 10 steals and nine assists in three games.