GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — If there were any questions about Florida’s status in the Southeastern Conference following a loss at Arkansas last week, the Gators put those to rest Tuesday night.
With another lopsided win in league play.
And against defending national champion Kentucky, which had freshman star Nerlens Noel go down with a knee injury.
Scottie Wilbekin had 14 points and eight assists, Pat Young recorded his sixth double-double of the season and No. 7 Florida handled the 25th-ranked Wildcats 69-52.
The Gators (20-3, 10-1 SEC) snapped a five-game losing streak in the series and improved to 12-0 at home.
This one solidified Florida’s spot atop the SEC.
“They’re an outstanding basketball team,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They were last year, they are this year. They’re well coached, they’re talented, they’re very physical. Their guards are just jerking balls out of our guys’ hands. We couldn’t get near the basket on Young. He just physically took away the rim. And they’re very active.”
The Wildcats (17-7, 8-3) lost for the first time in six games, and it may have been costly.
Noel, the nation’s leading shot-blocker, injured his left knee in the second half and was taken to a campus hospital for tests.
Noel, a forward who averages 10.6 points, 9.6 rebounds and 4.5 blocks a game, landed awkwardly on his leg with about 8 minutes to play. He screamed in pain as trainers rushed to his side. Teammates carried him to the locker room. After the game, trainers pushed him through the halls of the O’Connell Center in a wheelchair and with his left leg in a brace.
“I’m physically sick right now for him,” Calipari said. “What I’m hoping is it’s not the extreme. I’m hoping it’s some sort of twist, but we don’t know.”
Florida had a comfortable lead before the injury.
The Gators opened a double-digit lead, 31-19, in the first half on consecutive 3-pointers by Wilbekin, Mike Rosario and Kenny Boynton — backbreaking shots that frustrated Calipari and had his players looking dazed and confused.
Florida extended it to 16 points on Rosario’s layup. It was the biggest deficit the Wildcats had faced all season.
And they did little to erase it.
Young and fellow big man Erik Murphy, who was in early foul trouble, carried the load in the second half.
Young made a basket with a nifty, up-and-under move, had a reverse layup and added a sweet, left-handed hook. He finished with 12 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.
“When he gives incredible effort and plays with a really good motor, he’s capable of getting double-doubles every night,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan, who improved to 2-7 against Calipari. “He rebounded. He made great effort plays, kept balls alive. He did a really good job.”
Murphy drained a 3-pointer after taking a charge on the other end. He also had three blocks.
The Gators needed big games from Young and Murphy considering they played a second game without forward Will Yeguete and were undersized against the Wildcats.
Nonetheless, the difference was guard play.
Wilbekin sliced through the lane at will, creating open shots for teammates and getting Kentucky’s players out of position. Noel, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein spent time on the bench in foul trouble.
“I really thought he played an all-around, very, very good game,” Donovan said of Wilbekin, who was benched to start Saturday’s win against Mississippi State.
Fellow guard Rosario finished with 12 points for Florida, which has won every conference game by double digits. Murphy chipped in 10 points, and Casey Prather added 12 points and two blocks and took several charges, proving again to be a capable replacement for Yeguete.
Cauley-Stein and Julius Mays led Kentucky with 10 points apiece.
The Wildcats shot 42 percent from the field and had 17 turnovers.
“We just played soft, scared, uptight,” Mays said. “We let the pressure get to us. Usually, we’re really good with the press. I don’t know what it was today, but we just weren’t tough enough.”
Calipari warned reporters Monday that beating Florida would be a difficult task, especially since the Gators have played so well at home and have a much more experienced roster.
The most significant disparities came in the paint and off turnovers. The Gators scored 36 points in the paint and 20 points off turnovers; the Wildcats had 26 points down low and just five off Florida’s 11 turnovers.
Afterward, though, all the talk was about Noel’s injury.
“I don’t know what ended up happening, but it was clear from him moaning in pain that he was struggling,” Donovan said. “I admire the way he plays and I admire his energy. I don’t know how badly he’s hurt, but the energy came from a hustle play. It kind of embodies who he is as a player. He’s a hustle-play guy, and you just feel sad if there’s any kind of length or duration that he’s out because everybody admires in this league, coaches-wise, how he plays the game.”
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