NEW ORLEANS — If only Florida had not lapsed into a more than six-minute scoring drought in the second half, Erik Murphy's career performance might have been enough to propel the Gators to an upset of top-ranked Kentucky.
Murphy scored a career-high 24 points on 9 of 12 shooting and hit all four 3-pointers he took, but No. 1 Kentucky outlasted Florida 74-71 on Saturday in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament.
"We've just got to keep it up," said Murphy, whose Gators fully expect to see their season continue in the NCAA tournament. "We've got to play with confidence, play unselfishly and fix the little things."
Bradley Beal added 20 points and Patric Young 10, but it was not enough to prevent the Gators (23-10) from falling to 0-3 against the Wildcats this season.
Florida led 56-51 on Young's jump hook with 10:43 to go, but the Gators' offense, which had been so consistent to that point, suddenly lost its rhythm. The Wildcats used a 14-0 run to surge in front 65-56 before Murphy's 3 ended the Gators' drought with just more than four minutes to play.
"We feel like our game plan worked — pushing the ball and trying to speed them up," Florida guard Kenny Boynton said. "We did that to the best of our ability. But we know in that six-minute segment, that's what hurt us. We lost focus."
Anthony Davis had 15 points and 12 rebounds, and Terrence Jones added 15 points and nine rebounds for the Wildcats (32-1), who've won 24 straight.
Doron Lamb scored 16 points and Marquis Teague added 15, with each hitting a pair of key free throws in the last 15 seconds to secure the win against a Florida team which shot 48 percent, including 11 of 22 from 3-point range.
"We know people are going to give us their best shot every game, especially coming down to tournament time," Teague said. "It really doesn't matter how much you win by. We just want to make sure we get a win."
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had 10 points for Kentucky, which shot 45 percent (27 of 60) and outrebounded Florida 39-25. The Wildcats grabbed 16 offensive rebounds.
There was a significant disparity in free throws, with Kentucky hitting 15 of 20 and Florida going 2 for 2.
"I don't understand how, in a game like that, we get to the free throw line two times ... when you see from our bench in the second half, (Florida forward) Patric Young getting pushed in the back constantly, constantly, constantly, and there's just no whistle," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "To me, it's really hard to overcome 20 free throws to two. ... I'm not saying we didn't foul them. ... But, I mean, we got to the free throw line two times?"
Still, Florida pulled back to within one possession, at 65-63, after Murphy scored seven straight points.
"We made some shots, we played pretty good defense for the most part," Murphy said. "With these two teams, at this stage of the season, meeting for the third time, we pretty much know each other, so I think that's what kept it real close."
Davis' putback after Teague's missed free throw gave Kentucky a 68-63 lead, but Beal responded with a quick 3 from several feet behind the arc to make it 68-66 in a back-and-forth finish.
Kentucky coach John Calipari praised Florida's resilience after the Wildcats appeared to be on the verge of breaking the game open with their big second-half run.
"When we had a nine-point lead, normally we put people away," Calipari said. "Billy's just done a fabulous job to keep those guys marching forward."
Florida shot close to 60 percent through the first 15 minutes and did not trail until the final seconds of the first half.Comment on this story
Beal hit a 3 to open the game and Murphy made two more soon after, and the Gators hit five of their first eight attempts from deep, with Beal's second putting Florida ahead 31-21.
Florida led 39-32 on Erving Walker's layup with 4:25 left in the half, but Kentucky's defense tightened up after that, not allowing the Gators another point before halftime.
Lamb's 3 ignited an 8-0 run to close the period.
Davis, who had only one point in the first half of Friday's victory over LSU, had a much better start against Florida, and Kentucky needed it. He made four of his first six shots for 10 points, including a 3 that gave Kentucky its first lead of the game at 40-39 15 seconds before halftime.