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Date story published: Thursday, February 19, 1998

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - When he's walking his grandkids across the tracks to reform school someday, Jason Williams will be able to say he made a huge difference in two Florida-Kentucky games this season.

Kentucky's 79-54 victory at Florida last night served as testament to the difference Williams' absence could make.

Williams, who led Florida in scoring (17.1 ppg) and the Southeastern Conference in assists (6.7 apg) and steals (2.7 spg), directed the Gators to an 86-78 victory at Kentucky Feb. 1.

This time, with a third suspension of the season leading to Williams' dismissal Monday from the team, the Gators were directionless. Florida, which averaged 81.1 points with Williams, did not crack the 40-point barrier until only 6:10 remained and finished with the lowest point total in run-and-gun Coach Billy Donovan's two seasons here.

Kentucky, which unveiled a four-guard starting lineup, pounced immediately on the Gators' shaky backcourt. Florida ended up with 22 turnovers, which equaled the second-highest total for a UK opponent this season.

But after enduring 6 a.m. practices this week and eager to avenge the earlier loss to the Gators, Kentucky saw Williams' absence as incidental.

"We were coming in focused whether he was here or not," UK Coach Tubby Smith said.

Kentucky, which enjoyed its most lopsided victory of the season (other than the Morehead State and Ohio games), improved to 23-4 overall and 11-2 in the SEC. Florida, which might have seen its NCAA Tournament "bubble" status burst, fell to 13-10 overall and 6-7 in the league.

In addition to the Florida team, Smith's credibility took a beating.

During his customary day-before-the-game news conference, Smith insisted he would not change Kentucky's starting lineup. It wouldn't do any good, he said.

That same day he told the team he'd start four guards. Freshman Saul Smith and senior Cameron Mills made their first career starts. They joined the regular starting backcourt of Wayne Turner and Jeff Sheppard.

"I was rewarding the guys who did well academically," Smith said of the lineup change.

One of the players who sat, Allen Edwards, confessed to straying from the academic straight and narrow recently. "Mine was about being late to a class and not putting in study hall hours," he said.

Like Edwards, Scott Padgett also did not start for the first time this season.

Ironically, the small lineup apparently was intended, in part, to help UK take advantage of its expected height advantage inside. Unlike the loss to Mississippi on Saturday, the Cats looked early and often for center Nazr Mohammed, the team's leading scorer.

Mohammed, who led UK with 19 points, scored the Cats' first six points.

With plenty of help coming from a ball-hawking defense that fueled repeated fast-break baskets, Kentucky steadily expanded a lead that reached its first-half zenith at halftime.

The Cats' 41-24 lead at the break marked their biggest halftime cushion since a 48-30 bulge at Tennessee on Jan. 24. It was also UK's ninth double-digit halftime lead of the season (and just the third against an SEC opponent).

Florida stayed competitive for about 10 minutes. But ultimately the loss of Williams took the bite out of the Gators. Florida finished the half with three assists and 14 turnovers.

"They didn't have that extra guy to penetrate and pitch to give guys open shots," Padgett said. "It all fell on Eddie (Shannon). I don't think he could do it all by himself. He tried his best."

Shannon and his backup, Dan Williams (no relation and no resemblance in talent to Jason Williams), combined for five assists and 10 turnovers.

"I am not going to excuse our play because of not having Jason Williams out there," Donovan said before adding, "In reality, we had three guys playing positions that they were not used to."

Kentucky used a 16-2 run midway through the half to take control. Sheppard, who had 18 points, led the way with nine points. He flashed his athleticism: a dunk off a lob from Allen Edwards, a fastbreak dunk and two other baskets in transition.

"Jeff really got us started with his intensity at the offensive and defensive ends," the UK coach said.

Kentucky also defended well. The Cats held Florida without a basket for more than six minutes during its breakout. The Gators shot 38 percent, their third-worst accuracy of the season.

"We came on the court afraid of Kentucky," Shannon said. "When they made the run, we folded instead of regrouping."

Meanwhile, for one of the few times this season, Kentucky could play free and easy. The relaxed mode showed. Edwards swished a three-pointer, his second trey since the South Carolina game Jan. 13.

Later, Jamaal Magloire took a pass on the right side of the basket and smoothly pivoted 360 degrees to the left side for a one-handed dunk. A few minutes later, he caught a pass in transition and dropped in a left-handed shot from the low post.

UK led by as many as 31 points down the stretch.