GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Aaron Bradshaw may have earned himself the green light moving forward.
The 7-foot-1 freshman hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 1:27 to play — just his third of the season — and No. 6 Kentucky rallied to beat Florida 87-85 on Saturday in the first Southeastern Conference opener between the rivals in 26 years.
Bradshaw finished with 10 points and seven rebounds for the Wildcats (11-2), who won their fifth in a row and ninth in 10 games.
This one went Florida’s way for most of the afternoon, right up until coach John Calipari called a shot for his big man coming out of a timeout. Bradshaw set a ball screen and then got the ball back for a straight-on trey that was nothing but net.
It silenced many of the 10,000-plus on hand in the O’Connell Center.
“It was fun. I like that,” Bradshaw said. “That’s a really good team. I find it real, real gratifying. It was real fun. I’m not going to lie. It was real fun playing in front of them and against them.”
Bradshaw entered the game having made two of three from behind the arc, so the Gators knew he could shoot. But he surely wasn’t atop the watch list.
“If you would have told me they were going to need a 3 from their freshman big to dagger you guys, you’d probably live with that,” Florida coach Todd Golden said. “He beat us with that shot. We didn’t really beat ourselves with that shot.”
The Gators (10-4) led by as many as 11 in the first half and were up for nearly 30 of the 40 minutes. But they went cold down the stretch, going scoreless for nearly three minutes in the waning minutes, and then fell behind on Bradshaw’s shot with the game tied at 76.
Kentucky never trailed again, thanks partly to Reed Sheppard hitting six free throws in the final 19 seconds to ice it.
Antonio Reeves led the Cats with 19 points, and D.J. Wagner added 14. Sheppard also had 14. Kentucky made 12 of 13 from the charity stripe after missing the front end of consecutive one-and-ones late.
“This is where you find out where you are right now,” Calipari said, praising his team for never backing down in a hostile environment. “I don’t care if they’re young. They’re dogs. They have a will to win.”
Florida’s six-game winning streak came to an end. Zyon Pullin and Walter Clayton led the Gators with 23 points apiece. Riley Kugel added 15 off the bench.
But Florida got little from starters Tyrese Samuel and Will Richard. Samuel scored three points on 1-of-6 shooting, and Richard missed all eight shots and finished with two points.
Equally problematic for Golden: His team missed 10 of 11 from 3-point range after making eight — including two bank shots — in the first half.
“We missed some really good looks,” Golden said. “One shot here, one turnover there is the difference. … I thought it was a missed opportunity.”
Kentucky could move up when the next AP college basketball rankings are released Monday.
Kentucky: Calipari has his best team in years, one that entered the game averaging 91.1 points. The Wildcats could see that number dip in league play, but maybe not by much as evidenced by the opener.
Florida: The Gators are as talented and deep as they’ve been in a decade and will be a tough out in SEC play. They were actually favored by 3 1/2 entering the game, a clear nod to what’s going on in Gainesville.
“It’s all part of the growth of where we want to get,” Golden said. “But we led for 30 minutes. Shoot, that’s going to sting.”
Kentucky: Hosts Missouri on Tuesday.
Florida: Plays at No. 22 Ole Miss on Wednesday.
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