Date story published: Wednesday, February 20, 2002
If Sunday's four-hour meeting did not bring unity to Kentucky, perhaps last night's pulsating 64-61 victory over Tennessee might.
The game typified Kentucky's long, hard struggle of a season. The persistent if not efficient Cats did not lead in the first 38 minutes. Often, they looked as disjointed as ever, maybe more so in falling behind by 16 points in the first half.
"We could easily have folded and felt sorry for ourselves," reserve guard J.P. Blevins said. But "this team never gave losing a chance."
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Aided by Tennessee's sloppy ball handling and a roaring crowd, the Cats relentlessly chipped away at the deficit until it became a matter of clutch plays in the final 90 seconds.
If nothing else, UK has built a volume of experience at clutch time this season.
The Cats forged their first tie since 5-5 when a Jules Camara free throw knotted the score at 57 with 2:23 left.
After the teams traded layups, Kentucky took its first lead. Fouled on the drive, point guard Cliff Hawkins made one of two free throws to put UK ahead 60-59 with 1:26 left.
After Tennessee turned the ball over for the 18th and last time, Hawkins hit the clutch shot. He drove into the lane and launched his patented left-handed floater. It bounced around the rim and in with 36.3 seconds left.
"We had a play designed (a Tayshaun Prince post up)," Hawkins said. "But I got a step on (Jenis Grindstaff)."
Tennessee missed a chance to tie it when Jon Higgins' three-point attempt rimmed out with nine seconds left.
A happy Rashaad Carruth grabbed the rebound and got fouled. He seemed to clinch it with two free throws that gave UK a 64-59 lead with 7.8 seconds left.
But as with this Kentucky season, nothing came easy this night.
The Cats conceded a Higgins layup. Then Prince had to call timeout with eight-tenths of a seconds left when he couldn't inbounds the ball.
Prince made the inbounds pass after the timeout to clinch what seemed like a season-saving victory.
"A loss would have been devastating," Blevins said. "It was a must-win. We need momentum, and we need it in a hurry."
UK improved to 18-7 overall and 8-5 in the Southeastern Conference, tying Georgia for second place in the Eastern Division, a half-game behind Florida.
Tennessee fell to 13-13 overall and 6-7 in the SEC.
Kentucky played one of its worst first halves of the season. But a Blevins-sparked rally in the final 90 seconds spared the Cats no worse than a 33-26 halftime deficit.
The Cats missed their first seven shots and 13 of their first 16 en route to a 30-percent accuracy for the half (nine of 30).
And if Sunday's four-hour meeting was designed to unite the UK players, it succeeded in a perverse way. About all of the Cats shot poorly.
After the starters made two of nine shots to start the game, UK Coach Tubby Smith sent in five substitutes -- Josh Carrier, Erik Daniels, Carruth, Camara and Blevins -- at the 14:33 timeout.
The subs made two of eight shots before the starters returned with 10:26 left.
Kentucky's frustration reached a signature moment with about seven minutes left. After the Cats stole the inbounds pass, Keith Bogans found himself in front of the basket for an uncontested shot. His attempt went off the back of the rim. That was part of another frustrating night for Bogans, who was benched the final 17:57.
"When there's a lid on the basket, it can be demoralizing," UK Coach Tubby Smith said. "You could feel that happening to us."
Still, Tennessee's lead reached its zenith, 33-17, with 3:09 left.
The Cats seemed destined for a double-digit halftime deficit. But UK's switch to a zone defense helped keep Tennessee scoreless the rest of the half.
Blevins ignited the crowd by making a three-pointer with 1:28 left. That reduced the deficit to 33-21.
The crowd's roar grew deafening when Blevins then stole the ball from Grindstaff. That led to two Bogans free throws.
Two free throws by Blevins (fouled on a defensive rebounding attempt) and one by Prince set the halftime score.
"The big run was the end of the first half," Tennessee's first-year coach, Buzz Peterson, said. "Instead of going up 15, it was seven. If we had that cushion, it would have helped."
Kentucky stayed in the zone as it mounted a comeback early in the second half. Visibly more animated, the Cats got after a jittery UT. Slowly UK chipped away, getting within 41-39 on two Prince free throws at the 14:05 mark.
Vincent Yarbrough, who scored a career-high 27 points, repeatedly blunted UK's rally. When the Cats got within 48-44, he swished a three-pointer from the right corner. That made him 6-for-10 from beyond the arc. At that time, the Cats were 3-for-18 on threes.
Another clutch shot by Yarbrough seemed as deflating as Enron stock. With UK trailing 52-48, Tennessee had a shot blocked out of bounds. Only four seconds remained on the shot clock. Yarbrough broke free and banked in a three-pointer from in front of the Vols' bench.
Still Kentucky kept coming. A two-man game between Camara and Hayes fueled the rally. Three times the pair collaborated on layups; twice Camara fed Hayes. The second reduced UK's game-long deficit to 57-56 with 3:19 left.
After a timeout with 3:05 left, Tennessee remembered it had Haislip. He took three straight shots for the Vols, his first attempts of the half. None went in.
The game (and the season?) was on the line. Kentucky grasped it.
"We're trying to rally," Blevins said. "We're trying to be a team. This was a big step for us."