Date story published: Saturday, March 13, 2004
ATLANTA -- Sophomore guard Kelenna Azubuike captured yesterday's third installment of the Kentucky-Georgia basketball drama.
"It was a thing of pride," he said.
In a game that rewarded a thirst for respect and dig-deep willpower, Kentucky had an edge: point guard Cliff Hawkins.
Doubly stung by Georgia's two regular-season victories over UK and Georgia point guard Rashad Wright's anointment as the league's best defender, Hawkins found a perfect response. He led the Cats to a 69-60 victory in the win-or-go-home Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Hawkins scored a career-high 23 points, which included several clutch shots. But while his teammates noted the motivation Hawkins felt in competing against Wright, the UK player put the victory in a team context.
"We have our pride back," he said.
Hawkins, who matched a season-high with four steals, made no secret of his steely determination to beat Georgia.
"He told us before the game, we're not going home," Ravi Moss said.
Then, ably assisted by Gerald Fitch, who returned to the starting lineup, Hawkins guided Kentucky over the jagged glass that is Georgia.
That the SEC coaches voted Wright the league's best defender further fueled Hawkins' ever-ready competitive fire.
"He kind of took it personally," teammate Chuck Hayes said. "I think he had a chip on his shoulder. He felt like that was his because everybody knows he can play on-the-ball defense as well as anybody."
It being Kentucky-Georgia, the game was about defense, not high-flying acrobatics and crowd-pleasing finesse. As Smith-Barney would say, Hawkins made Wright get his 23 points the old-fashioned way. The talented Georgia senior earned those points.
"He played Rashad extremely well," Georgia Coach Dennis Felton said. "Rashad had to really, really work for everything he got."
Fitch shut down -- and nearly shut out -- Georgia freshman Levi Stukes, who the day before tied an SEC Tournament record with eight three-pointers against Auburn. Against UK, he got off one shot -- a three-point airball -- in the first 18 minutes and made only one of seven attempts in a brick-filled afternoon.
The plan called for UK to make Stukes drive and maneuver for his shots rather than take uncontested jumpers.
"I don't think he was rushing as much as their defense was forcing us to play a tick faster offensively," Felton said.
Stukes' one basket was timely. It came during a second-half rally that saw Georgia erase an 11-point deficit and tie the score at 52-52 with 5:36 left.
Crippled by six-for-16 free-throw shooting, Georgia trailed only 56-55 when Wright hit a three-pointer over Hawkins with 2:28 left.
What unfolded next summed up Hawkins' approach to this game and the competitive fire he brings to any game. With the shot clock inside 10 seconds, he countered Wright's three-pointer with one of his own.
"That's a big part of him," teammate Erik Daniels said of Hawkins' impulse to counterattack. "Like anyone else, he doesn't want to get shown up."
Felton, who lamented that a Georgia defender did not challenge the shot, saw Hawkins' clutch play as "prideful. He's prideful as a competitor."
Azubuike acknowledged that some observers question Hawkins' sometimes itchy trigger finger.
"Some say it's questionable," Azubuike said of the long three-pointer. "I say it's mental toughness. I don't question it. I knew what he was thinking. He wanted to hit the big shot. And he did. That's mental toughness."
Hawkins also displayed physical toughness. Early in the second half, he "tweaked" an ankle as he backpedaled in defending a driving Wright. Good thing for Kentucky, he returned three minutes later.
"We knew Georgia would be a tough competitor," Hawkins said. "Georgia was probably the toughest team we're going to play the whole tournament."
Thanks to Hawkins, the team's toughest player, Kentucky met the challenge.