GAINESVILLE - Any doubts about the Gators standing among the nation’s best teams might have been premature.
No. 7 Florida’s defense flustered No. 25 Kentucky as the Gators rolled to a 69-52 win Tuesday night in front of 12,480 at the O’Connell Center. It was UF’s largest margin of victory over the Wildcats since 2005.
The Gators snapped a five-game losing streak against Kentucky that spanned two years and four cities. More importantly, Florida reasserted itself as the undisputed heavyweight of the SEC and got its defense back to a championship level.
“We got better,” said coach Billy Donovan, who was disappointed in his team’s defense over the previous three games. “Our effort and our guys being connected on defense — they really did a much, much better job.”
Florida (20-3, 10-1 SEC), which was blown out twice by Kentucky last season, took a two-game lead in the conference race with seven games left.
The result of the game might have been the least of the worries for Kentucky (17-7, 8-3).
Down by 12 with eight minutes left, the Wildcats suffered a huge blow when freshman center Nerlens Noel — who is projected as a high pick in this year’s NBA Draft — was hurt.
Florida guard Mike Rosario drove for a fast-break layup, and Noel blocked the shot from behind and collided with him in the air. Rosario flew harmlessly into a crowd of cheerleaders, while Noel appeared to bang his left knee on the padded basket support. He was down for several minutes before teammates carried him to the locker room.
“His leg was wobbly. (It) looked like his knee was dislocated,” Gators center Patric Young said. “It was gruesome. I don’t even want to think about it.”
Noel, who had eight points, six rebounds and three blocks, left the O’Connell Center in a wheelchair and went to the hospital for an evaluation. Kentucky coach John Calipari did not immediately know the severity of the injury and said he was “physically sick” about it.
On Wednesday, the Wildcats learned Noel had torn his ACL and will be out for at least six months.
For UF, the victory was especially satisfying. Florida fought back from a week in which it lost its first conference game, learned that crucial reserve Will Yeguete is out the rest of the regular season with a knee injury and did not play up to its defensive standards in a victory over Mississippi State.
“We’re in first place in the SEC, but we were all down on ourselves,” Young said. “We had to come out ready to play against Kentucky. We weren’t doing all the things we were doing earlier in the year defensively.”
Florida has won at least 20 games in each of the past 15 years — all with Donovan as head coach. In the 77 seasons before his arrival, UF reached that mark four times.
It took a few minutes to get rolling, but the Gators pulled away near halftime and held Kentucky to its worst first half of the season, 38-25. The Wildcats had scored at least 30 in all of their previous conference games.
Florida distanced itself with a 7-0 run toward to take a 25-15 lead. After going back and forth with Kentucky over a few possessions, the Gators led 31-19 with 3:50 left in the first half and were up by double digits the rest of the night.
“You lose focus for a minute or two in a game like this and the ballgame’s over,” Calipari said. “My basketball team is OK. This team is really good.”
Florida held the Wildcats to 42 percent shooting from the field and benefited from 17 Kentucky turnovers.
Six Gators scored at least nine points, led by Scottie Wilbekin’s 14. Wilbekin hit 5 of 9 shots and added eight assists and two steals. Young had 12 points and 11 rebounds.