Date story published: Wednesday, January 4, 2006
Though facing an opponent with a pedestrian 6-5 record that included a 33-point pasting by Florida and losses to Florida Atlantic, Sam Houston State and Birmingham-Southern, Kentucky needed a last-second shot to beat Central Florida 59-57 last night.
Fortunately for the Cats, they had Rajon Rondo to take that shot.
"The best point guard in the country with the ball in his hands," Central Florida Coach Kirk Speraw said. "That's pretty hard to defend. We had our best defender on him."
Besides having to create breathing room against UCF's Justin Rose, Rondo overcame post-nasal drip.
"I don't know what I have," said Rondo, who noted a stuffy nose as one of the symptoms. "I won't say strep throat again. But something is keeping my air out. I can't really breathe good right now."
As if there weren't enough obstacles, Rondo faced the added burden of needing to adjust on the fly with the game on the line. Grace under pressure, Hemingway called it.
During a timeout with 19.5 seconds left, Kentucky called a play called "Fist," which sends Rondo to a corner and then off multiple screens.
But UK Coach Tubby Smith saw Central Florida's defensive alignment and ordered "Drag": Rondo comes off a high-post screen.
One problem: Central Florida nullified the screen, sending Rondo into improvisational one-on-one mode.
"I like it a lot," Rondo said of having victory or defeat in his hands. "I plan on taking a lot of shots in that spot."
Good plan. Cut off on the drive by Rose, Rondo spun into the lane and swished a soft shot from just inside the foul line with 1.5 seconds left.
"Big, big shot," Smith said. "A player of Rajon's ability and Rajon's heart, he makes those type of plays."
It looked like a shot he takes often. "He does that move pretty good," Smith said.
But Rondo, whose statistical line included 13 points, six assists and four steals, said he had no muscle memory to call upon.
The game winner one of his patented shots? "Not at all," he said. "It was really all about the defense he played."
Poetic justice would have had another UK guard, Ramel Bradley, make the clutch shot.
Bradley's first-half play, when he scored 14 of his game-high 16 points, saved Kentucky from deep trouble.
Without Bradley's scoring, "It would have been ugly," Smith said.
Kentucky missed its first six shots and fell behind by as much as 18-7 with 9:33 left.
UK's usual answer to a sluggish start -- mass substitution -- failed to pay dramatic dividends. But at least the subs got on the scoreboard, courtesy of Shagari Alleyne's free throw at the 15:11 mark. UK's first basket came at 14:08, when Alleyne put a fast-break pass from Ravi Moss into the basket.
On Monday, Smith suggested that UK's long-sought consistency on offense would come from defense creating turnovers and fueling transition points. "Score in flurries," he said. "Something we've not been able to do."
At the first half unfolded, Bradley provided a flurry at both ends.
After taking a charge, he made a three-pointer to reduce the deficit to 18-12 with 7:04 left. UK needed almost 13 minutes to reach double digits.
Later, Bradley got the Cats within 20-19 by making three free throws after being fouled outside the arc.
Bradley got Kentucky even for the first time when he made a three-pointer to tie it at 22-22 with 4:55 left.
After Bradley forced a five-second count, the Cats grabbed their first lead at 24-22 when Rondo hit a spinning pull-up shot in the lane at 4:55.
UK went ahead 29-24 when Bradley hit a three-pointer from the left side. When he made a fast-break pull-up shot, Bradley had made his first four shots (three from three-point range), and UK led 31-24.
Kentucky led 33-26 at halftime.
The Cats took their first double-digit lead with 13:32 left. A fast-break layup put UK ahead 45-34 and prompted a Central Florida timeout.
Kentucky led 49-41 with 8:29 left.
Then UK scored one basket in the next four minutes. Central Florida rallied, resulting in four lead changes down the stretch.
Coming out of a timeout, Central Florida tied it at 57 on guard Mike O'Donnell's three-pointer with 24.9 seconds left.
"A well-executed play we were trying to run," said Speraw, who called the play during a timeout with 36 seconds left.