Date story published: Sunday, November 29, 1998
BAYAMON, Puerto Rico -- Kentucky and UCLA have combined for 18 national championships and 81 first-team All-America players.
Despite that heritage, yesterday's UK-UCLA game (just the seventh game ready-for-prime-time players recently. Hence their meeting in the Puerto Rico Shootout third-place game.
Although UK snapped out of its three-point shooting drought, that's not what most pleased Coach Tubby Smith.
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That honor went to how the Cats took a step toward prime-time play in beating UCLA 66-62.
"The way we won probably builds more confidence than anything," Smith said. "By that I mean coming from behind. Having to fight off a very gallant and determined UCLA team. Having to make big, big plays down the stretch.
UCLA, starting over with a team consisting of 12 freshmen and sophomores, bore little resemblance to the veteran Bruins team that quit five minutes into the game against UK last March in the NCAA Tournament.
UCLA (2-2) was the aggressor from the start. Despite their youth and UK's press, the Bruins forced twice as many turnovers as they committed. UCLA also won another hustle stat, outrebounding the Cats 23-20 in first half.
The first half brought back painful memories of Pittsburgh taking the initiative and beating Kentucky on Friday.
This time, Smith directed heated halftime rhetoric at his tone-setting senior tri-captains. "He basically ripped the three seniors," said one senior, Scott Padgett. And the Cats fought back to improve their record to 5-1.
"They responded in a way I didn't think we responded our heels. In the first half (against UCLA), we were sort of back on our heels, not taking the fight to them.
"People are going to come at us like this. They're going to give their best effort. They're going to reach down. We beat (UCLA) pretty handily (last March). I'm sure they felt they had a chance to get some revenge. And they almost did."
Three-pointers, the weapon that ruined UK's chances against Pitt, played a key role in beating UCLA. The Cats made a season-high nine threes against UCLA after having hit only two of 22 against Pitt, only three of 34 in the tournament and only eight of 48 in the last three games.
Early in the first half, five straight Kentucky baskets were three-pointers. Sophomore Ryan Hogan, the designated zone buster to replace Cameron Mills, hit bookend three-pointers in a two-minute span during which the Cats made four straight shots from behind the line.
13:15 left in the first half. "He stepped up and knocked down those two threes, which I thought were critical. They gave us some momentum. Then everybody else had the confidence they could make their shots."
The threes enabled Hogan to equal his career high of six points.
"I watched from the bench and saw they were playing off us (on the Still, UCLA led 32-27 at halftime as Kentucky scored one basket (a Heshimu Evans three-pointer) in the final 9:37.
"I've been concerned about getting Wayne (Turner), Scott and Heshimu to start concentrating more on the team and not on themselves," Smith said of his halftime rhetoric. "You can start internalizing on not playing well. So I challenged them at halftime. It's their team. They needed to be leaders. more from them and I thought we got more from them."
An increased zeal in Kentucky's play showed immediately. UCLA, which committed only six turnovers in the first half, turned over the ball that many times in the first six minutes of the second half.
Thanks to freshman forward Jerome Moiso, the Bruins did not crumble. Moiso, an athletic 6-foot-11 native of Guadeloupe, scored 15 of UCLA's 30 second-half points. Moiso, a taller, even more athletic version of UK freshman Jules Camara, personally outscored UK 7-0 to give the Bruins a 45-43 lead with 10:27 left.
"Whew," Smith said of Moiso. "He was unreal. He's just a freshman, too. We had no answer for him."
But UK found a way to win. Freshman Tayshaun Prince swished back-to-back three-pointers to start a 13-0 Kentucky run that gave the Cats a 56-45 lead with 6:45 left.
UCLA rallied. Moiso's drive by Padgett closed UK's lead to 58-55 with 3:20 left.
Kentucky's experience and UCLA's youth showed at crunch time.
Tellingly, Evans and Padgett scored UK's final eight points. Each hit clutch free throws in the final 30 seconds. Padgett, battling a mysterious slump in which he made only four of his previous 13 shots from the line in Puerto Rico, hit two with 30 seconds left to give UK a 65-60 lead.
Evans made it a two-possession game with 14 seconds left by making a free throw to give the Cats a 66-62 lead.
"Yeah, the experience factor played an important role down the stretch," Smith said. "Once again, our defense was really the difference. We were able to make the necessary stops at the end of the game."