Originally created 03/15/04

No. 8 Kentucky tops Florida



ATLANTA -- Nothing to get excited about. Just another Southeastern Conference championship.

For Kentucky, it's downright routine.

The eighth-ranked Wildcats cruised to their 25th SEC tournament title - and 10th in 13 years - with an 89-73 rout of Florida on Sunday, earning the top seed in the NCAA tournament.

And, really, the NCAAs are all that matters to a program with Kentucky's pedigree.

"This isn't the ultimate," said Gerald Fitch, who wasn't even all that excited about being selected tournament MVP. "Being Kentucky, the ultimate is winning the national championship. This is just another step toward our goal. We know the big business is coming up next week."

Kentucky (26-4) dismantled the Gators (20-10) for the second time in a week, following up a 20-point win at Rupp Arena to close the regular season. The Georgia Dome looked as though it was in Lexington - nearly everyone in the crowd of more than 22,024 was a member of the Bluegrass Nation.

"Our fans go wherever we go," Kentucky's Chuck Hayes said. "You kind of feel sorry for the other teams, because all you see is a sea of blue."

The Wildcats stretched their winning streak to nine games, earning the top seed overall from the NCAA selection committee. They were placed in the St. Louis Regional, with an opening-round game Friday in Columbus, Ohio, against the winner of the play-in game between Lehigh and Florida A&M.

"I think we've made a pretty good case for ourselves," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said.

But back to the SEC. The 25 tournament titles are more than the other schools in the conference combined, to go along with 42 regular-season championships.

Contrast that with Florida, which fell to 0-4 in SEC tournament finals. The Gators are one of just two current members who have never won the tourney.

"We didn't have enough in the tank," Gators coach Billy Donovan said. "Kentucky proved they are one of the best teams in the country."

From the opening tip - Cliff Hawkins got the ball and fired ahead to Fitch, who swished a 3-pointer from the corner - it was all Kentucky.

With the game less than 4 minutes old, the Wildcats grabbed their first double-digit lead at 14-4. They were up by as many as 15 points in the first half before settling for a 49-37 halftime lead. Florida only got that close because Matt Walsh hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Any thoughts the Gators had of mounting a comeback were quickly eradicated when they missed their first seven shots after halftime. Kentucky started 0-of-6, then got rolling. Hayes scored off a layin with 15:38 remaining to make it 54-40, a precursor of all the easy baskets to come.

Hayes spotted Erik Daniels alone under the basket and rifled a pass to him for a dunk. Daniels backed into the lane, then dumped the ball off to Hawkins cutting through the lane. He made the shot, was fouled and finished off the three-point play with a free throw.

Kentucky built the lead as high as 25 points before turning the final minutes into another version of Senior Day, taking out the fourth-year players so they could take a bow.

Hayes, a junior, received a big hand when he came off, too. He dominated on the inside, shooting 10-of-14 and grabbing eight rebounds. While Kentucky is known for its 3-point shooting, the Wildcats won this game in the lane, outscoring Florida 38-16.

"I just let the game come to me," said Hayes, who also had a game-high eight assists. "They didn't do a lot of double-teaming. They were letting me get the ball in the post pretty easy."

Fitch, back in the starting lineup, scored 18 points. He came off the bench in the semifinals, scoring 24 points in a win over South Carolina.

"I like being the MVP, but we've still got games to play," said Fitch, who averaged 19 points in three tournament games. "I'll celebrate for a day. But the real big tournament is coming up. We want to get to the Final Four."

The Wildcats were favored to make it last year, only to get upset by Marquette in the regional final. They don't want to slip up again.

"We can't have a bad game," Hayes said. "We've played well the last few games. We've got no excuses if we don't make it."

Kelenna Azubuike, the least-heralded of Kentucky's starters, had another strong game - especially in those early, tone-setting minutes. He had 18 points and a team-leading nine rebounds.

Walsh led the Gators with 17 points, but this was another disappointment in an up-and-down season. Florida still made the NCAA tournament but hardly lived up to the promise from early in the season, when the Gators climbed to No. 1 in the rankings for a week.

They were seeded fifth in the East Rutherford Regional and will open Thursday against Manhattan at Raleigh, N.C.

When it was over, Walsh epitomized his beaten team. He hobbled off the court, carrying his right shoe, the sock hanging limply off half his foot.

In the locker room, Walsh revealed a huge blister on the bottom of the foot.

"I didn't want to look at it, with my sock all full of blood, during the game," he said. "I knew if I took a look at it, I probably wouldn't really want to see it. So I waited until I came off for the last time."