Date story published: Wednesday, February 7, 2001
Tayshaun Prince, the Southeastern Conference's reigning Player of the Week, was Kentucky's man of the hour last night.
His 12-foot baby hook with 3.3 seconds left gave UK a thrilling 71-70 victory over hard-charging Florida.
"That's an All-American type shot and type play," UK Coach Tubby Smith said. "When you have a good player who can make plays like that, certainly you're going to win a lot of games."
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Prince, who's made a habit of hitting clutch shots in his career, needed a second chance to be the hero against Florida. Trailing 70-69 with seemingly its last possession, Kentucky point guard Saul Smith came off a Prince screen and shot a 15-footer about 14 feet.
"Actually, I used a curse word because I lost the ball on the way up," said Saul Smith, who noted that he's playing despite a sprained thumb. "Then I thought, oh man, we got the rebound. OK. OK. Timeout. Timeout. I was hyped up."
Freshman Gerald Fitch, who came up big at clutch time, somehow came out of a jumble of players with the rebound of the air ball.
"It seemed like (Florida guard Teddy) Dupay mis-timed it," Fitch said. "He fumbled it a little bit."
Dupay, who played 30 minutes in his third game back after early-January back surgery, said he never touched the ball. "It just went right through my hand," he said. "It just came right to me. I wasn't able to come up with it."
After each team called a timeout with 10.4 seconds left, UK set up for either Prince or leading scorer Keith Bogans. With Florida's bullish center, Udonis Haslem, blanketing Bogans on the low post, the Cats went to Prince on the same right side.
Tightly defended by Florida senior Brent Wright, Prince twice changed direction. He went left, then dribbled right, slipped and then returned to the left. Wright shadowed each step.
"I knew he'd jump on the top side and make me go right," Prince said. "Actually, I went too fast. That's why I slipped. If you're Billy Donovan, you couldn't ask for better defense. It was a difficult shot ... just a heartbreaker for them."
Donovan agreed with Prince's assessment. "I thought Brent Wright did as good a job defensively as you can do," the Florida coach said. "I don't think he could have defended the play any better."
Who knows how many left-handed baby hooks Prince has softly flipped into baskets in his lifetime? "I shoot it anywhere I get in the paint," he said. "You call that a patented shot."
But this baby hook was more like a toddler, coming several steps farther from the basket. "He wasn't squared to the basket," Fitch said. "It was funny looking."
"It's real tough because, for one, you're not looking at the basket," Prince said in explaining his mid-shot adjustment under win-or-lose pressure. "You're looking to see who might come over and double team. Your eyes don't get to the rim until you rise in the air."
Prince, who had scored 52 points last week to win the SEC honor, led all scorers with 19 points. Of the final two, Tubby Smith credited the same tranquil demeanor that irks UK fans at other stages of games.
"He's very poised and very calm," the UK coach said of Prince. "Nothing seems to get him off keel. He's usually very patient. Even on that possession, he took his time. He made a couple moves. He didn't rush it. ... That allows him to make those types of plays when everybody around him, including myself, is going berserk."
Kentucky solidified its hold on the SEC lead. The Cats improved to 14-7 overall and 7-2 in the league.
No. 8 Florida did not get a shot off with the game's last possession. After taking Wright's half-court inbounds, Brett Nelson's off-balanced flip pass in the direction of the basket never reached a teammate. Prince intercepted the pass. The Gators, who had a four-game winning streak snapped, fell to 15-5 overall and 5-4 in the SEC.
The game did not seem destined for a last-second hero.
Kentucky used opportunistic fast-breaking and solid defense to control much of the first half. A 15-4 run in the final 4:36 gave the Cats a 45-31 halftime lead. "They totally outplayed us," Donovan said of Florida's largest halftime deficit of the season.
The Gators used a matchup zone and Haslem's inside scoring to stage a second-half rally. Still trailing by 12 points with 12:12 left, Florida went on a 15-2 run to take a 60-59 lead at the 5:21 mark. In that span, the Cats made only one of 11 shots. Seven were three-point shots, three of which were rushed up as the shot clock neared expiration.
"We have to go to work to figure out how we're going to attack the matchup zone," Tubby Smith said. "It made us very passive."
Three times in the final five minutes, Florida built three-point leads. Dupay, fouled by Bogans on a three-point shot, made two of three free throws to put the Gators ahead 67-64 with 2:33 left. It was Florida's only miss from the line of the second half in 13 attempts.
Twenty seconds later, Fitch tied it with a three. Then Nelson put Florida back up 70-67 with a three at the 1:52 mark.
A dunk by Marvin Stone off a Fitch pass got the Cats within one and set up Prince's moment.