GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Despite baffling inconsistency, evident flaws and several bad losses, Florida is sitting atop the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division.
With a cushion, too.
Chandler Parsons had 17 points and 12 rebounds, Alex Tyus made two big defensive plays late and the Gators (No. 23 ESPN/USA Today) beat Kentucky (No. 11 ESPN/USA Today, No. 10 AP) 70-68 Saturday night.
"It feels good," Parsons said. "It's a big-time win. These are the kind of games you dream about as a child."
Florida, which has struggled from the free throw line all season and lost four games because of it, went 18 of 22 from the stripe and hit some clutch ones late.
Erving Walker sank both ends of two one-and-ones in the closing minutes. His final free throw put Florida (18-5, 7-2 SEC) ahead for good. Tyus followed with a baseline hook shot and Parsons added a free throw with 12.7 seconds remaining.
The Wildcats (16-6, 4-4) had a final chance, but Brandon Knight's 3-pointer came up short. It was the only shot Knight missed from behind the arc. He finished with 24 points, five rebounds, four assists and one costly miss.
"When he went up in the air, I just held my breath," Walker said. "It wasn't just a basket. It was the ballgame."
The Gators had a lot to do with the errant shot. Kenny Boynton, who guarded DeAndre Liggins most of the night, picked up Knight at midcourt and then switched with Tyus. The taller Tyus got a hand in his face on the final shot.
"It's frustrating," Knight said. "We have to know how to handle the situation. It's a learning experience."
Tyus also guarded Terrence Jones tight down the stretch, forcing a miss with about a minute left. Jones added 18 points and seven rebounds.
Jones expressed frustration with his team's inability to finish games or play 40 minutes.
"Just fighting so hard to come back and just trickle off our lead with the last minute to go in almost every away game," Jones said.
Florida, meanwhile, gets another chance to handle success -- something they haven't done well this season.
"We have a great opportunity to take a step forward from here," said coach Billy Donovan, whose team also knocked off Vanderbilt (No. T-24 ESPN/USA Today, No. T-23 AP) earlier this week.
Kentucky will fall from its top-10 spot after losing consecutive games for the first time under coach John Calipari. In fact, it's the first Calipari-coached team to lose two straight since Memphis dropped four in a row in the 2004-05 season.
"We did everything we were supposed to," Calipari said. "We're just not quite where we need to be."
Florida's victory, along with Tennessee's loss to Alabama, gave the Gators a 1½-game lead in the East. Kentucky is two games back at the midway point.
"We just played four games out of five on the road and with this young team, it's just hard," Calipari said. "We're doing all right, though."
The Gators got this one going with a strong second half. They opened the second half with an 11-4 run that gave Donovan's team a little breathing room, 45-36.
Florida built a 13-point lead on Vernon Macklin's dunk, Parsons' 3-pointer and five free throws -- yes, the team that has struggled from the stripe all season made five in a row.
But the Wildcats clawed back from the double-digit deficit -- most of it thanks to Knight.
The freshman point guard, playing against former AAU teammate Boynton, got the Wildcats rolling. He started the comeback with a pair of free throws, then hit back-to-back 3s. He dished to Jones for a 3, hit two more from the stripe and then found Darius Miller all alone on the wing for another 3-pointer.
That put Kentucky up 64-63 with 3:36 left.
But it didn't last.
Now, the question is whether Florida can keep it going after winning for the 10th time in 12 games.
"Do we have a maturity level as a team going forward?" Donovan said. "That has been our No. 1 problem. We have not handled [success] well. Our guys are pretty resilient. It's when we have those moments when we go, 'OK, [we've got it figured out].' We can't do that right now."
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