LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – You could say the University of Kentucky basketball team does not begin play in the NCAA Tournament for at least 15 days. Or you could say the Wildcats began post-season play last week.

Give me Option B.

Why? The Wildcats’ final four regular-season games called for tests against Alabama, Vanderbilt, Florida and Louisiana State, four Southeastern Conference teams scrambling to secure their spots in the tournament.

Kentucky beat Alabama and then lost at Vanderbilt last Saturday.

Make the Wildcats 2-1 during the first three games of their NCAA Tournament warm-up. Kentucky handled Florida with authority, 88-79, at the O’Connell Center in Gainesville Tuesday night.

Kentucky’s five starters scored in double figures and the Wildcats hung 52 points on the Gators in the second half.

The Wildcats won on the road in the SEC for the fourth time with a performance that was nearly as dazzling as their victory at South Carolina. They improved to 22-8 overall and 12-5 in the SEC.

John Calipari started the game by going to the bullpen. Marcus Lee went to the bench. Calipari replaced him with freshman Skal Labissiere, who had not started a game since Dec. 19. That was the first change.

Kentucky also appeared to be more determined to take the ball to the rim. After missing 24 of 32 three-point shots in its previous two games, Kentucky took only 10 shots from distance against the Gators and made seven.

Labissiere responded like a guy who wanted more minutes. He scored two baskets and grabbed three rebounds before the first TV timeout. He finished with 11 points, his best scoring performance since Labissiere hung a dozen points on lowly Missouri on Jan. 27. He also contributed eight rebounds.

Alex Poythress also shook off the funk that left him scoreless at Vanderbilt last Saturday. He scored six quick points. Credit Poythress with a solid double-double – 12 points and team high 10 boards.

Add the usual productivity by Tyler Ulis (9 first-half points, 19 for the game) and the Wildcats were able to overcome a bad shooting half by Jamal Murray, who missed five of his first six shots, including two from distance. Murray figured it out in the second half, when he scored 18 of his 21.

Isaiah Briscoe was the other Kentucky player who had a solid night on offense. Consider this: He made five of six free throws while scoring 13.

It was a layup by Poythress off a feed from Ulis that pushed UK to a 32-18 lead with 6:41 left in the first half. Then the offense stalled. The Wildcats missed nine of their next 10 shots and threw the ball away five times. Florida cut the Kentucky lead to 34-32 before Ulis set up Lee for basket in the final minute of the half to bump the Wildcats to a 36-32 halftime lead.

Florida never made the Wildcats sweat during the second half, even though the Wildcats suffered a shot-clock violation on their first possession. The Gators cut the UK lead to 38-36, but never managed a tie.

Kentucky had a 10-2 spurt and followed that by pushing its lead to 66-51. Florida made the game last forever by fouling on nearly every UK possession down the stretch.

Didn’t matter. The Gators could not make three-point shots or free throws. They were five from 18 from distance and an ugly 16 of 37 from the foul line.

ESPN bracket analyst Joe Lunardi said during the game that the Gators had to win to maintain their spot as the final at-large team in the 68-team NCAA field.

Lunardi said that Kentucky, Texas A&M, South Carolina and Vanderbilt were the SEC’s four likely NCAA team. He said the league’s fifth spot would go to Florida, Alabama or Louisiana State.

On Saturday, of course, Kentucky plays its final regular-season game against LSU in Rupp Arena.

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