Senior salute: Balanced attack leads Cats to 74-66 win over Florida [SLIDESHOW]

The UK mens basketball team celebrates at the end of the second half of UKs win over Florida at Rupp Arena on Sunday, March 7, 2010. Photo by Britney McIntosh

The UK men’s basketball team celebrates at the end of the second half of UK’s win over Florida at Rupp Arena on Sunday, March 7, 2010. Photo by Britney McIntosh

Its 44th Southeastern Conference Championship had been sealed before the game began, but UK (29-2, 14-2 SEC) still led their seniors and one of the fans’ all-time favorites out in style.

A balanced UK scoring attack, which saw five players reach double figures, led the Cats over a resilient Florida squad which cut an 18-point deficit to two. The Cats scored 12 of the game’s final 18 points and won 74-66 to put an exclamation point on their 44th SEC Championship. Still, after the game UK head coach John Calipari said he’s never coached a team that worried about a conference championship.

“What happens is, instead of playing for that championship you’re playing for something bigger,” Calipari said. “I’m not sure we’re quite there yet but we’ve done everything we were supposed to at this point. And you’re playing for a one seed (in the NCAA Tournament).”

After each team traded baskets for the first part of the opening half, the Cats caught on fire to give themselves a comfortable lead.

UK shot 53.8 percent from the field in the first half and 6-of-12 from beyond the arc to lead 41-31 at the halftime break. The Cats rode a 14-0 run in the first half to stretch the lead to 34-16, and held Florida without a field goal for 5:38. The Gators then used a 10-3 run to close out the half, and cut the once 18-point lead to 10.

“You just sit there and you tell them, these are things we cannot do,” Calipari said. “I thought Florida outworked us at individual positions which gave them a chance, and I just keep coming back to, our goal has got to be we’re going to play harder than that other team. We have to. If not, we’re going to disappoint ourselves somewhere along the way.”

The Gators continued their comeback in the second half. Following a Florida timeout at the 17:12 mark, the Gators went on an 11-3 run to cut the UK lead to four points at 50-46. Then, with 10:52 to go in the game, a Vernon Macklin dunk off an assist from Erving Walker cut the UK lead to three at 59-56.

“They fought their way back into the game, we know we have that killer instinct, we just have to develop it more and use it more,” Patterson said.

After a dunk by Erik Murphy with 5:23 to play cut the lead to two points, freshman guard John Wall rose to the occasion.

One game after saying he may not be the best shooter in the country but he knows how to score in crunch time, Wall hit a 3-pointer with just under five minutes to play which pushed the Cats lead to five points. Florida on scored only six points in the remaining minutes and the Cats closed the game and the regular season on a 12-6 run and a season sweep of the Gators.

“What I like is that someone would say that and then go into the game and back it up. Wow,” Calipari said. “… He is a great kid and is taking on leadership and talking in huddles and being aggressive with guys. We need it.”

The win capped off a perfect home record for the Cats and Calipari becomes the first head coach since Eddie Sutton in the 1985-86 season to go undefeated at home in his inaugural season at the helm.

When the final buzzer sounded though, the Cats didn’t celebrate their 44th SEC Championship with fireworks and pyrotechnics like other teams might. Instead, the Cats sang “My Old Kentucky Home” with the fans in attendance and cheerleaders, and went back into the locker room.

Patterson said the reason for no excess celebration was because the team’s No. 1 goal was to win a national championship.

“Winning the SEC, winning the SEC Tournament (are) just other accomplishments on the road to our main objective, our main goal,” Patterson said. “We believe that since we have the weapons, and the coaches and the players, we have a strong opportunity to achieve that goal. That’s our main focus.”