It was a title that seemed out of the question just a month ago, when injuries and a 1-3 SEC record alarmed even the most optimistic of boosters.
"After starting 1-3, if I would have told you we'd be playing Kentucky for the SEC on March 4, people would have laughed," coach Billy Donovan said. "That's why I'm so proud. It's what they've struggled to overcome."
Udonis Haslem had 20 points and nine rebounds as the Gators (22-5, 12-4 SEC) held off repeated rallies from Kentucky, which fell behind by 15 early and never got closer than seven.
Sophomore Keith Bogans had a career-high 29 points for the Wildcats (19-9, 12-4), but his team's persistent rallies got turned away.
"I think we needed to win," Wildcats guard Gerald Fitch said. "We tied. That's not too bad, but we needed to win it."
Florida prevented Kentucky from winning the title outright, in the same fashion the Wildcats did it to the Gators in Lexington a year ago.
As Kentucky shuffled off the floor, confetti rained down and the packed O'Connell Center erupted into chants of "SEC, SEC, SEC" as fans watched the Gators take the nets down.
One-time Kentucky coach Rick Pitino watched from the stands. His former team lost t the program he advised his protege, Donovan, not to come to in 1996 because Pitino felt Florida was bankrupt in talent.
Obviously, he has changed his mind.
"This is like a mini-Duke, as far as the atmosphere," Pitino said. "It's incredible what Billy has accomplished in a short amount of time."
Indeed, things started changing when Donovan arrived, and now he has 100 victories at Florida and two SEC co-championships to show for it. Parker and Brent Wright, the first two players Donovan signed when he arrived, played for the final time at home, and were honored at the start of an emotional afternoon.
"Coach told us to channel our emotions to focus on the little things," Parker said. "I think we did a great job of that. It was certainly an emotional game, but we handled it very well."
Despite the loss, the Wildcats put on a brave show to end a regular season in which they struggled to a 3-5 record early but won 16 of their final 20 games. They couldn't overcome Florida's 11-for-17 shooting from the 3-point line and an ice-cold start in which they fell behind 26-11.
"I'm proud of this team, how much we've accomplished," coach Tubby Smith said. "We went through a lot of adversity, much like Florida did with all the injuries they had."
Bogans and Tayshaun Prince were unstoppable in the second half, making twisting shots and spot-up jumpers to help Kentucky answer Florida basket for basket down the stretch.
But when Matt Bonner hit a 3-pointer to give the Gators an 86-76 lead with 2:01 remaining, the game essentially became a free-throw shooting contest, and Florida survived.
Kentucky's best chance to make a serious run came with eight minutes remaining, when Marvin Stone dunked home a teammate's miss to apparently pull the Wildcats within six. Bonner was hanging on the rim when Stone dunked, but officials called offensive goaltending, saying Stone touched the ball inside the cylinder. Then, Smith got a technical foul for arguing.
It resulted in a six-point swing, and the Wildcats never had that good a chance afterward.
"That was a tough call there, a six-point play," Smith said. "Then I get a technical that I probably didn't deserve, because I've never gotten a technical I deserved in my life. I thought it was a bad call."
Prince finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds for the Wildcats, who enter the SEC tournament next week as the top seed from the East. They tied Florida, but won the better seeding due to a better record in the division.
Brett Nelson had 17 points and six assists for the Gators. Given two days off to rest his aching back, Dupay hit 5 of 6 from 3-point range to match the career high he set in the season opener against Florida State.
Parker had 10 points in his final home game. Wright, still ailing with an injured foot, played only the first four and final four seconds of the game.
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