Date story published: Thursday, February 15, 2001
KNOXVILLE -- Dead-eye shooting -- no, make that surreal shooting -- in the state famous for the Tennessee long rifle carried Kentucky toward an emotional victory last night.
But Kentucky being Kentucky, the kiddie Cats had to survive yet another stumbling finish to beat Tennessee 103-95.
UK matched the high for three-point baskets in the Tubby Smith era. The Cats made 14 threes in cementing their hold on first place in the Southeastern Conference.
"I thought Kentucky played as perfect a first half as I've seen in four years at Tennessee," UT Coach Jerry Green said of UK's 10 first-half treys. "I don't know if I've seen a team in the last 13 years that played as good a half as that team did."
Kentucky's main man, swingman Tayshaun Prince, stayed red hot. Having shot 61.7 percent in the last four games, he hit a career-high six three-pointers and finished with a career-high 30 points.
"The way I've been playing has been terrific," said Prince, who became the 48th UK player to score 1,000 points in his career. "I know in a place like this, my team needs me to step up."
Both coaches singled out Prince as the key contributor.
"He's kind of our leader," UK Coach Tubby Smith said. "When he's playing well, we usually play well."
Said Green: "If I had to vote for a most valuable player in the conference right now, I'd vote for Tayshaun Prince."
Prince's bombs helped Kentucky snap the Vols' 18-game home winning streak. Tennessee, the pre-season choice to win the SEC, lost for the sixth time in eight games. But for the first time in that downward spiral -- and for the first time since Jan. 12, 2000 -- UT lost at home.
But with Rocky Top Tennessee seemingly headed for rock bottom, the Vols salvaged their pride. UT kept fighting even though it trailed by as much as 19 in the second half, and by 16 with barely five minutes left.
Two turnovers and 1-for-4 free-throw shooting enabled Tennessee to scare, if not beat, the Cats down the stretch. Tennessee got as close as 95-93 with 1:40 left when Jenis Grindstaff picked Saul Smith's pocket and fed Vincent Yarbrough for a layup.
But freshman Gerald Fitch, a hero in often-overlooked ways at crunch time, came through again. After Keith Bogans missed a jumper, Fitch got the rebound. Fouled on the play, he hit two free throws with 1:03 left to give UK a 97-93 lead.
After UK snuffed Grindstaff's ill-advised driving attempt, Prince made two free throws to point the Cats toward victory.
That Kentucky finally cut off a Vol driving to the basket pleased Tubby Smith. Seven times in the final seven minutes, Tennessee players drove to within 10 feet of the basket for scores.
"What concerns me were the breakdowns defensively," he said. "We didn't get people rotating to take the charge. You need team defense. You're not going to stop a player like Isiah Victor with one guy. Or a Vincent Yarbrough."
Saul Smith echoed the coach's words. "Defensively, I'd give us a D-minus," he said. "Because we had so many breakdowns. All in that seven or eight minutes down the stretch."
Yarbrough led Tennessee with a career-high 28 (16 in the second half). Victor, a native of Hopkinsville, added 21.
UK won for the 13th time in its last 15 games. The Cats improved to 16-7 overall and 9-2 in the SEC. The latter kept the Cats two games ahead of Florida in the Eastern Division.
Tennessee, which played without senior point guard Tony Harris, could not have asked for a better start. The Vols hit their first three shots and five of their first six en route to a 12-3 lead. UK got only one basket -- a three-pointer by Bogans -- in its first seven possessions. Worse, the Cats turned the ball over four times in the first three minutes.
Then Kentucky showed UT the true meaning of red hot. UK entered the game ranked ninth among SEC teams with an average of 6.1 three-point baskets per game. The 10 first-half treys were more than the Cats had hit in 19 of their previous 22 games.
Bogans and Prince led the way with four and three treys respectively. J.P. Blevins, Smith and Fitch each hit one.
"I knew Tayshaun and Keith could shoot," Tennessee forward Ron Slay said. "I didn't know they could shoot like that. I didn't know Tayshaun Prince had that much range."
Prince said he surprised the Vols with his long-range shooting.
"I know they weren't expecting me to get off the shot from that distance," he said. "They were expecting me to drive a lot. At the beginning of the game, Slay tried to bump me around. He tried to get me tired and get me off my game."
The three-pointers helped Kentucky quickly erase Tennessee's big early lead. UK made 14 of 21 three-point shots, the best accuracy of the Tubby Smith era.
"We just got good looks at the basket," said Bogans, who snapped out of a mini-slump with 22 points. "A couple times in the second half, I couldn't believe how open we were."