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No. 11 Kentucky rallies past No. 13 Florida 76-66

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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.

BIG PICTURE

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.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

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.

FOUL TROUBLE

Four Gators had four fouls, including guards Kasey Hill and Allen.

UP NEXT

Florida: The Gators host Arkansas on Wednesday night.

Kentucky: Hosts Vanderbilt on Tuesday night in its home finale.

More AP college basketball at http://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.