Posted March 16, 2014 06:30 pm - Updated March 16, 2014 07:37 pm

Gators survive Kentucky, can't be this sloppy in NCAAs

Top-ranked Florida celebrated and danced after narrowly escaping Kentucky 61-60 to win the Southeastern Conference tourney Sunday, but there’ll be no rejoicing at the NCAA’s Big Dance if the Gators have a repeat of how they performed at closing time.

Florida did everything possible to give the game away in the last 10 minutes. They blew a 54-39 lead, committing six turnovers (two on shot-clock violations), missing two front ends of a 1-and-1, and looking uncharacteristically out of sync for an experienced team.

The Gators (32-2) survived, thanks to Wildcats’ guard James Young slipping and falling when he attempted a game-winning drive into the lane with five seconds left. The clock expired as players on both sides dove on the floor for the loose ball.

Unlike so many other close calls Florida had against SEC opponents, this was the first time Billy Donovan’s team looked tired and failed to play smart basketball down the stretch. A third win over Kentucky, which hadn’t been accomplished in one season since Tennessee in 1979, was as hard as any victory all year.

“We fouled way too much,” Donovan told ABC during his team’s on-court celebration. “The game slowed down. We struggled to score. We’re fortunate to escape with [poor] free throw shooting.”

Still, the Gators deserved to celebrate because they still won all 21 SEC games and  ran their school-record winning streak to 26 games. UF just pulled off this last one in the least expected fashion.

Florida sputtered to the finish line. It converted just 7 of 17 free throws. The Gators made only three baskets in the last 11 minutes, none bigger than Michael Frazier knocking down a three-pointer with 5:55 left after the ‘Cats went on a 14-0 run to close the gap to 54-53. They never scored after Patric Young’s layup with 1:55 remaining

Scottie Wilbekin, the SEC Player of the Year and UF’s most dependable player in the clutch, and Dorian Finney-Smith each missed the front end of one-and-ones in the closing seconds to give Kentucky a last shot to win the game. It never got that shot off once Young slipped on his drive to the basket.

There was an obvious sense of relief afterwards as the Gators held an SEC banner aloft, with confetti falling down on them at the Georgia Dome. Florida will start a bid for a third national title with a homecourt advantage Thursday in Orlando, where it meets the winner of the Albany-Mount St. Mary’s play-in game.

For now, the Gators can exhale. Starting the NCAA tournament so close to home should help them get recharged. Florida just better hope how it finished against Kentucky isn’t a prelude to what’s coming with the biggest prize on the line.

The Gators got away with an incredibly shaky closing stretch in the SEC championship. If that happens again in the next three weeks, their magical season will end in heartbreak.