Date story published: Sunday, January 14, 2001
Passions run high among Kentucky fans. They've been known to scream for a call in the final minute with the Cats leading by 30. They've booed a UK team en route to a 29-point home victory.
So, of course, they've kept a skeptical eye on Tayshaun Prince (as in wince?). Too California cool. Too mellow. A gifted glider who was -- to borrow the unkindest of cuts known in the athletic world -- soft.
Tough guy from the mean streets of Compton? More like Mr. Geniality from Knotts Berry Farm.
To those doubt-ers, Prince offered a straightforward response yesterday.
"They need to watch this game," he said after leading Kentucky to a 82-71 victory over Notre Dame.
Prince excelled in one of the roughest, most intense basketball games played in Rupp Arena in several years. Three technical fouls -- all for ill-intended elbows or shoves -- testified to the teams' shared take-no-guff attitude.
"They were trying to see where our heart was," UK guard Keith Bogans said of a double-technical scuffle between Hopkinsville native Harold Swanagan and two Cats, Marvin Stone and Cliff Hawkins, in the first 10 minutes. "We weren't folding for no one."
Thereafter, the players and referees were content to stage something resembling roller-derby without the rails and skates.
"The refs did a great job," said Notre Dame swingman David Graves, the Lexington Catholic product. "They let it go, which is the way we like to play."
No doubt to the surprise of some, Prince thrived in this setting. He led all scorers with 19 points, only six coming from the relative safety of three-point territory. He led UK in rebounding with eight.
And, most decisively in terms of winning the game, Prince spearheaded a UK team defense that limited All-America candidate Troy Murphy to a season-low 14 points.
That multifaceted excellence drew high praise from UK Coach Tubby Smith. "Tayshaun is a gamer," he said.
Murphy, who came into the game averaging 24 points, saluted Prince as an unusually good adversary.
"Usually guys, they come out real strong," Murphy said of the defenders he's faced. "They're all gung-ho at the beginning. But Tayshaun really focused the entire game. I didn't get any open looks. Every time I got a shot, he was there flying at me. And it made it real tough for me."
Prince acknowledged the challenge of facing a player of Murphy's caliber stoked his competitive fire. "If I just went in there and went with the flow of the game, it wouldn't have worked out my way," he said.
Murphy, who came into the game averaging 24 points, expected to muscle shots over Prince. But he scored only twice in the half-court set: a fadeway 15-footer in the game's first two minutes and a low-post power move in the game's final two minutes. His other four baskets included three put-backs and a jumper as the trailer on the fast break.
"I tried to get him inside," Murphy said. "I tried to really back him in. But ball pressure on the guards (making the entry passes into Murphy) made it tough. Therefore, I caught the ball farther outside than I would have liked.
"And Tayshaun Prince did a really great job defensively. He's got extremely long arms that make it tough to shoot over."
Though 30 pounds heavier than when he arrived at UK as a painfully thin freshman three years ago, Prince did not try to match Murphy muscle for muscle.
"Tayshaun didn't allow him to get to his body," Smith said. "Tayshaun is quick enough. He can give him a moving target that's hard to post up."
Kentucky looked like a punching bag as the game began. The Cats made two of their first 13 shots and trailed 14-4 at the first television timeout. At that point, freshman point guard Cliff Hawkins entered the game to give UK an all-substitute lineup (joining fellow freshman Erik Daniels, plus Marquis Estill, Marvin Stone and J.P. Blevins).
"We wanted some energy," the UK coach said. "Not that (the starters) weren't giving effort, but the shots were short. When the shots are short, I get really concerned about the mental. Are they mentally focused on playing? Because if you're sky-high, usually the shots are going to be long."
A change of momentum was immediate and dramatic. The Cats reeled off 13 straight points.
"They hit shots," said Graves, who made only four of 15 shots in his return home. "They got to the ball quicker than we did. They executed better than we did. They whupped us in that stretch.
"That was frustrating because we had total control of the game. The fans really got into it and it just fell apart from there. The key to winning here is to keep the fans out of the game."
Kentucky, which won its sixth straight game to improve to 9-5, scored 12 straight points late in the half en route to a 33-26 lead at intermission.
UK never trailed in the second half. Two Prince free throws gave the Cats their largest lead, 64-50, with 6:45 left. Unlike recent games, UK did not build a comfortable lead only to find itself scrapping to stave off a hard-charging opponent in the final minutes.
Notre Dame, which fell to 9-5, got no closer than five points down the stretch.