Date story published: Saturday, November 11, 2000
NEW YORK -- Usually, a college basketball team would embrace a comparison to mighty Duke. But Kentucky halfheartedly accepted just that as the consolation prize for playing in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.
The Cats bookended Thursday's 62-61 heartbreaking loss to St. John's with a roller-coaster 97-92 overtime defeat against UCLA last night. The 0-2 start -- proud Kentucky's first such stumble out of the gate in a quarter-century -- matched Duke's double dip in this event last year.
Now comes the harder part. Can Kentucky duplicate Duke's phoenix-like rise? The Blue Devils followed the Coaches vs. Cancer with 18 straight victories and roared into the NCAA Tournament as the nation's consensus No. 1 team.
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UK Coach Tubby Smith did not promise a similar revival. But he didn't sound despondent either.
"Well, it's four months before we play in the NCAA Tournament," he said when asked about the example set by Duke. "We feel we can correct some mistakes and problems we have. I think we'll be right in the thick of things."
For a second straight night, Kentucky came oh so close. The Cats rallied from a seven-point deficit with barely four minutes left in the second half to send the game into overtime.
UK scored the first three points in overtime. Then despite having lost leading scorer Jason Kapono to fouls in regulation, UCLA reeled off 11 straight points to take its largest lead, 88-80, with 1:23 left.
Rather than roll over, UK staged an improbable comeback. Saul Smith's three-pointer -- the eighth triple by UK in the second half and OT -- reduced the deficit to 91-89.
After UCLA made one free throw, Kentucky looked for the equalizer. But Saul Smith leaned ill-advisedly into the defender trying to draw a foul while taking the shot. His off-balanced heave inside the final 15 seconds did not reach the rim.
"I'd much rather see him shoot it," Tubby Smith said.
"Probably I should have had better court awareness," Saul Smith acknowledged. "I should have found someone else or just gone up with the shot."
Even that deflating moment did not kill UK's will to win. After two free throws put UCLA ahead 94-89 with 7.7 seconds left, Keith Bogans capped a 25-point night by banking in a three-pointer from the right side. That reduced UCLA's lead to 94-92 with 4.2 seconds left.
"I shot the ball so well in the second half, I felt if I was shooting it, it was going in," said Bogans, who had five points at halftime.
But Kentucky could not match the miracle St. John's used to beat the Cats a night earlier. UCLA threw long over UK's press. UCLA freshman T.J. Cummings dunked while being fouled intentionally by Marquis Estill to clinch the victory.
Both coaches found much to like about their teams in a game that saw nine ties, 24 lead changes and no lead greater than eight points.
Not only did Kentucky show no ill effects from the loss to St. John's, the Cats reduced their turnovers from 25 to 13 and increased their three-point baskets from two to 13.
"I'm proud of the way we responded," Tubby Smith said. "It was a tough, devastating loss (to St. John's). We gave it, uh, we let it get away. We were positive, upbeat and played with emotion and hustle."
UCLA, which lost to Kansas by a point Thursday, hung tough despite Kapono fouling out with 3:35 left in the second half. The Bruins did not make a basket in five minutes. In that span, a 74-67 second-half lead disappeared.
"We could have got discouraged," UCLA Coach Steve Lavin said. "We kept our poise and composure and solved some problems."
One problem UCLA solved was UK's 1-3-1 zone, an alignment the Cats first used when Kapono, a dead-eye perimeter shooter, fouled out.
Kentucky sensed victory. "I felt that way," Bogans said. "But UCLA's a great team. They sent in other players to fill in for him."
It took awhile, but UCLA finally scored against the zone when point guard Earl Watson (20 points, nine assists and no turnovers) hit a leaner in the lane with 3:25 left in overtime. That tied it at 80-80.
A minute later, Ray Young swished a three-pointer from the left corner to put the Bruins ahead 85-80.
"Critical," Lavin said.
UCLA players said they had more life than Kentucky in overtime. "We're always complaining about the running (in practice)," Young said. "In overtime, it seemed we were a lot fresher than Kentucky. We had legs. We had bounce."
Maybe so. But Kentucky countered with will and determination.
"I'm not happy," Tubby Smith said. "I'm not satisfied. But I think we can take a lot from this loss."