LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Not satisfied with making perimeter jumpers, Malik Monk drove to the basket to create numerous opportunities at the free throw line and found openings to feed his Kentucky teammates.
The freshman guard wasn’t aware until afterward of how many points he had piled up, but he knew that they helped the 11th-ranked Wildcats earn their most important victory this season.
Monk scored 30 of his 33 points in the second half, Bam Adebayo added 18 points with 15 rebounds and Kentucky rallied past No. 13 Florida for a 76-66 victory Saturday to take over the Southeastern Conference lead.
“I didn’t know about that until after the game,” said Monk, who made 10 of 11 free throws and five 3-pointers along with a team-high five assists. That contribution definitely came in handy as point guard De’Aaron Fox missed the game with a knee contusion.
“I was just playing, but it was crazy,” Monk added. “I was way more patient in the second half than I was in the first half.”
While another week remains in SEC play for both teams, the Wildcats (24-5, 14-2) took an important step toward clinching the regular season title by twice rallying from eight points down to win the pivotal matchup. And they can thank Monk for making it happen as he scored 14 points during an 18-10 run that tied the game at 55 with 9:54 remaining.
The high-scoring Monk ended up with the most points in one half by a player under coach John Calipari, who was also taken aback by the outburst.
“Oh, he got 30 in a half?” Calipari said. “No wonder when I got on him about a couple of bad shots, he looked at me like I was crazy.”
Adebayo also overcame a slow start with 12 second-half points after grabbing 11 boards to rally Kentucky.
The 6-foot-10 freshman followed Monk’s key stretch with six straight points before Monk added seven more in between lobbing a pass to Adebayo for a 70-60 lead with 4:04 left. Monk sandwiched two free throws around layups by Isaiah Briscoe and Adebayo, points that proved critical in thwarting rally attempts by the Gators (23-6, 13-3).
Kentucky shot 64 percent in the second half to avenge a 22-point loss to Florida earlier this month. The Wildcats also outrebounded the Gators 48-30 with Adebayo grabbing 15 for the second straight game.
KeVaughn Allen had 24 points and Justin Leon added 13 for Florida, which had won nine straight. Devin Robinson had nine points and 11 rebounds.
Florida: The Gators had several chances to make things hard on Kentucky away but didn’t succeed, letting a 12-point lead slip away in the first half before letting a couple of second-half edges slip away. Several cold stretches didn’t help but rebounding was telling in this rematch as they were beaten on the glass after owning the boards 54-29 in the first meeting in Gainesville three weeks ago.
Most difficult was stopping Monk, who seemed to have answer for every defense they tried to contain him.
“We had a couple of options that did a good job on him in Gainesville,” coach Mike White said. “We just didn’t do quite as good of a job (in Lexington), especially down the stretch.”
Kentucky: The Wildcats started raggedly without Fox but clawed back throughout thanks to Monk’s scoring. Others chipped in big on the glass, as Derek Willis had nine rebounds, Briscoe eight and Dominique Hawkins six. They succeeded despite committing 16 turnovers, but only four after halftime.
Kentucky’s gutty win could move the Wildcats back into the Top 10.
ON A ROLL
Adebayo posted his second straight double-double and has 40 points and 30 rebounds the past two games. He’s the first with consecutive double-doubles since Tyler Ulis did so last March.
“My confidence just keeps building,” said Adebayo, who also had a career-best 15 rebounds at Missouri.
Four Gators had four fouls, including guards Kasey Hill and Allen.
Florida: The Gators host Arkansas on Wednesday night.
Kentucky: Hosts Vanderbilt on Tuesday night in its home finale.