By LARRY VAUGHT
ATLANTA — Kentucky started the season ranked No. 1 in most polls, but it was Florida that ended the year No. 1 and unbeaten in Southeastern Conference play.
That’s why the Wildcats wouldn’t deny they were looking forward to a third meeting with the Gators in Sunday’s Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game. Florida advanced with a come from behind win over Tennessee Saturday while UK beat Georgia 70-58 to set up a third meeting between the two rivals.
“We are a different team now,” said Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison. “So we’ll see how we can do. Mainly we just have to worry about playing like we can and not worry about what Florida does.”
What the Gators have done, though, is use an effective defense and balanced offense to beat UK 69-59 in Rupp Arena and 84-65 in Gainesville just a week ago to end the regular season.
“Everybody is glad we are playing them,” Kentucky sophomore Alex Poythress said. “It will be a war. We know that. But we think we can stay in the game and be right there. They are a good team and play good team ball. But we are looking forward to the game. We know we are playing better now than we were even a week ago. We just want a chance to get after them.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari was not quite as anxious to take another run at Florida’s senior-dominated team.
“I’ve had enough of Florida. For four years I’ve seen the same guys. Some of them I think five years. I think they got a special program down there where they keep guys for six years,” Calipari joked. “But what a great team. What a great story. What a great coaching job. You’re talking about a team that it’s almost an honor to play a team like that. I understand when this game is close, they will not give you the game, and if you don’t fight like heck, they’re taking it from you. That’s who they are and that’s who they have been all year. I don’t see it changing.
“Now that means when we go against them, you’re going to have to take it. They will not give it to you. As you’re trying to take it, they’re trying to take it from you. So they absolutely bashed us down there. We weren’t even in the game. Then we make a 15‑0 run and get it close, and then they bash us again.
“My players can all say what they want. I’m not looking forward to playing Florida again. But you know what? We are here, I don’t think they’re going to let us leave, so we’re going to go play this game and see what happens.”
Still, his players didn’t back down from the chance to go against Florida.
“They got us both times. We will try to treat it as just another game, but I am glad we have got them,” James Young said. “Florida is just another good team. We have to leave it all on the floor and just execute. We can’t give them open shots and let their defense get to us. I think we are more confident than when we played them before. They are good, but we’ll see what happens.”
Dakari Johnson said Florida’s “team play” stood out to him both games and that when adversity hits, the Gators come together — something UK has finally done better in this tournament.
“It would mean a lot to win this game,” Johnson, who has two former high school teammates playing for Florida, said. “We just have to worry about executing like we can and see what happens. We can’t let them pound us on the boards or getting easy shots in transition. We have to play even better than we have these last two games.
“But we are just playing. We are not worried about what’s going to happen. We just have to keep being physical and playing hard against Florida like we have been.”
Willie Cauley-Stein said Calipari told them a win over Florida “would be cool” but that it is not the end-all to UK’s goal of winning a national title.
“It doesn’t really mean anything. We are trying to make a run to the Final Four. Obviously we will play to win and want to win, but the goal remains the Final Four no matter what happens,” Cauley-Stein said.