Date story published: Thursday, February 7, 2002
KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee, the master of late-game disaster this season, credited its vast experience with heartbreak as a help in beating Kentucky 76-74 in overtime last night.
The loss left Kentucky with more heartache to maybe use the next time it faces a make-or-break time in a game.
"Yeah, I am perplexed," UK Coach Tubby Smith said. "Because we practice the plays and work on the things we want to use. ...
"This was the third time, actually the fourth or fifth time, we've done this. We had opportunities and we were not able to make plays at the defensive or offensive end."
Tennessee, which started the game without one starter (a virus kept freshman center Brandon Crump in street clothes) and lost another early in the second half (point guard Jenis Grindstaff injured a knee), made the clutch plays.
Fittingly, it seemed, forward Marcus Haislip made the game-winning shot. Completing a monster night (24 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks), he tipped in his own miss to put the Vols ahead 76-74 with 18.3 seconds left.
"I had a good look at the basket and put it up," Haislip said of his first shot, a short jumper from the baseline. "And nobody turned to box me out. Everybody was just looking at the glass. I just went up and tipped it back in."
Kentucky's late-game problems continued.
After Haislip's shot, the Cats dribbled out the precious remaining time until Gerald Fitch found himself forced to call timeout when trapped 25 feet from the basket. Only 3.3 seconds remaining.
Smith did not shy from responsibility.
"Tayshaun (Prince) asked, 'Do you want to call timeout?'" Smith said. "I said, 'Push it.' It looked like it took forever to get upcourt. There was some indecision there. ... We should have had a lot more time."
Smith also second-guessed his decision to leave point guard Cliff Hawkins on the bench down the stretch.
"I probably should have put Cliff back in the game," Smith said. "As a steadying force. But I knew we were getting good play from Gerald."
After both teams called timeout, a UK team without its starting point guard got a rushed three-pointer from Prince over two defenders. It missed.
"Pretty decent," Prince said of the look he got. "With three seconds left, it's hard to determine what's going on. You just want to get the ball up there."
Freshman Chuck Hayes, who scored a career-high 15 points (and grabbed seven rebounds and made two steals), put the Cats ahead 74-72 with 2:05 left in overtime.
Then back-to-back UK turnovers opened the door for Tennessee. Prince shuffled his feet starting a drive and was called for walking.
On the next possession, Prince could not handle a Fitch feed while jockeying for post position.
"I didn't let him get his post-up position," Fitch said. "I kind of fed him too early."
Said Prince: "Gerald was close to a five-second (closely guarded) count. He had to get it out of his hands."
Tennessee's familiarity with close-game disappointment made star forward Vincent Yarbrough cringe.
"I didn't even look" at Prince's shot, he said. "I couldn't look. I just closed my eyes, turned around and saw it bouncing off the rim."
Kentucky fell to 15-6 overall and 5-4 in the Southeastern Conference. The latter left the Cats tied with Tennessee (12-10 overall) for third place in the Eastern Division, behind Georgia (7-3) and Florida (6-3).
Alabama improved its hold on the overall regular-season lead by beating Mississippi to improve to 8-1 in the SEC.
After Prince's miss, what was left of a noticeably small home crowd of 17,260 rushed the floor to celebrate. Maybe more telling, many in the crowd filed for the exits when Kentucky tied it in the final seconds of regulation. No doubt they remembered the Vols had lost seven games by four points or less this season.
"I told my team 'We're going to win, we're going to win,'" Tennessee Coach Buzz Peterson said. "'Just believe. Just believe.'"
That might have been difficult given Tennessee's history in close games this season. But, guard Jon Higgins said, the Vols used their past heartbreaks to steel themselves.
"Everybody sat back and said, 'We're not going to lose this game,'" Higgins said. "We all learned from the Florida game, when they hit the three, we all came to the huddle kind of down on ourselves."
Florida guard Brett Nelson's three-pointer with four seconds left sent that game into overtime. UT lost 104-100.
"Coach Peterson let it be known we weren't going to lose this game," Higgins said.
Kentucky trailed 70-64 with less than 30 seconds left in regulation. Fitch hit a three-pointer with 17.3 seconds left to get the Cats within 70-67. Then UT reserve Thaydeus Holden, a 70.7-percent free thrower, gave UK life by missing the front end of a one-and-one with 15.4 seconds remaining.
Unlike in overtime, Kentucky called time -- with 8.3 seconds left -- to set up the clutch shot at the end of regulation. Tennessee nearly nullified the brainstorming when it deflected Keith Bogans' inbounds pass.
But Bogans somehow tipped the ball to Hawkins. Hawkins drove to the three-point line. After a shot-fake drew the Tennessee defense, he passed to a wide open Fitch on the right side. Fitch's three-pointer with two seconds left sent the game into overtime.
Kentucky threatened to knock out Tennessee early in the bout. The Cats jumped out 19-6. After watching UK get three of its first six baskets on put-backs, Peterson called time with 14:18 left in the first half.
"First time this year I was really, really upset," he said. "If they were going to beat us, they weren't going to beat us on the offensive boards."
The opening minutes of the second half were Kentucky's time to be disappointed. Leading 39-30 at the break, the Cats saw Grindstaff drive four times for baskets inside the first four minutes to fuel an 8-2 mini-run.
That started a 70.8-percent shooting half for Tennessee.
"We couldn't stop them from scoring," Smith lamented.
Nor could the Cats make enough clutch plays at the end.
For a change, Tennessee could. Not that Peterson considered all accounts squared when it came to close games.
"There's about five more we need to get back," he said.