Plenty at stake when Cats-Gators collide

By WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
Usually when Kentucky and Florida meet the last weekend of the
regular season, it's for Southeastern Conference bragging rights.
This year, not so much.
There will be no conference title on the line Sunday when the
Gators (21-9, 8-7 SEC) face the Wildcats (17-11, 11-4) at Rupp
Arena, not with No. 4 Tennessee holding a firm grip on the
conference's top spot all season.
Instead, Florida and Kentucky find themselves in unfamiliar
territory: fighting for a chance to sneak into the NCAA tournament.
It's a scenario that seemed far fetched in January, when the
Gators held off the Wildcats in overtime to extend their winning
streak over Kentucky to seven games. The win lifted the Gators to
16-3 overall, while the Wildcats dropped to 7-9 and put their
16-year streak of making the NCAA tournament in serious jeopardy.
Yet the Gators have foundered since then, trying to overcome
inexperienced play and a sometimes sloppy defense. Florida is just
3-6 in its last nine games, and let a big lead get away in a loss
to Tennessee on Wednesday.
Meanwhile Kentucky has surged, however improbably, under
first-year coach Billy Gillispie. The Wildcats have won 10 of their
last 12, and stayed remained competitive even after losing
do-everything center Patrick Patterson to an ankle injury last
week.
Yet the Wildcats know early season losses to Gardner-Webb and
San Diego mean they can't afford to give the tournament selection
committee any more reasons to leave them at home.
"Every time we win a game, it seems like we have to win one
more," said guard Joe Crawford.
Crawford put the Wildcats in position to win one more after
scoring a career-high 35 points in a win over South Carolina on
Wednesday. He and fellow senior Ramel Bradley will make their final
starts at Rupp Arena against the Gators, and would like nothing
more than to beat their nemesis for the first time in three years.
"I don't know the last time we beat them. I might have been a
freshman," Bradley said. "It's not good to have a streak like
that. There's always some sort of streak people are talking about.
I'm not worried about it. Last year was the same thing. The only
way we are going to win this game is if we put that behind us."
Florida coach Billy Donovan has talked all season about having
his young team gain valuable experience that will pay off beyond
the end of this year. He has downplayed the importance of making it
to the tournament in an effort to take some of the pressure off a
squad that resembles the Florida teams that won consecutive
national championships in name only.
"I don't think there's anything in common with the last several
years, the last 10 years, in relationship to where we are right
now, other than the fact that Florida is across the jersey,"
Donovan said. "If they did make the tournament, it would be good
for their growth and for their development. But we have to grow
before we can really talk about those things."
Maybe, but Donovan's players would prefer to do their growing in
the tournament. Besides, they're savvy enough to know they still
control their postseason fate.
"We definitely need it," said Florida forward Dan Werner. "As
far as a play-in game, I don't know what the committee does or what
goes into it. I just know we need to win."
So do the Wildcats, though Gillispie said he hasn't given a lot
of thought about the tournament or about Florida's recent dominance
of Kentucky.
"If you look at those things, you're wasting your energy,"
Gillispie said. "They have a good, well-coached team that is
highly skilled. History is great, but it won't mean a lot on Sunday
at game time."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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