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WILLIAMS ELEVATES GATORS OVER CATS

Date story published: Monday, February 2, 1998

Ironically, Kentucky's only lead of the game signaled its ultimate demise.

UK a 2-0 lead with 19:35 left in the first half.

But the preceding 25 seconds should have set off a Big Blue alert. Florida deflected out of bounds not one, not two, not three, but four UK passes.

"You could tell they came in a little emotionless," Florida guard Eddie Shannon said of the deflections. "Even though they eventually got a layup on that possession, we knew right then we were playing hard and they weren't matching our emotion."

Like a row of dominoes falling one into another, that first possession set in motion a series of events that enabled Florida to outplay and beat No. 7 Kentucky 86-78 yesterday.

unusually sluggish play and typically inadequate three-point defense, the Gators led by as much as 15 early.

"We spent the whole first half just being sloppy," forward Scott Padgett said. "Instead of crisp passes, we were just lobbing the ball around."

of all but abandoning his team's main strength, its size inside. The Cats went small in hopes of better defending Florida on the perimeter. "That didn't work," Smith grumbled after Florida hit 12 three-pointers.

Not having to contend with Mohammed and Padgett inside (a combined six shots) further emboldened the undersized Gators.

"It was nice to see (Mohammed and backup center Jamaal Magloire) on the bench," said Florida guard Kenyan Weaks, who had a career-high 24 points. "We're not that big inside and they are two of the best rebounders in the SEC, so it helped us out a lot. It was great."

When Kentucky made its inevitable rallies - fueled almost exclusively by Cameron Mills' career-high 31 points - Florida did not crumble.

" We just got outplayed by a very good team," Smith said of Florida, which in our offense. We just didn't seem to have the energy we needed to stop them and contest shots when we really needed to."

Kentucky fell to 19-3, 8-1 in the SEC after suffering its worst the season .

Playing arguably his best college game, point guard Jason Williams personally gave Florida a lead the Gators never relinquished. The first of his four three-pointers gave Florida a 3-2 lead with 19:09 left.

Williams, whose solid play belied his reputation for wild inconsistency, finished with 24 points, six rebounds, four assists, four steals and just three excusable turnovers (a five-second count, a charge and a pass where he zigged and Shannon zagged).

"He did a sensational job," Florida Coach Billy Donovan said of Williams. "Getting other people shots, staying under control and getting his shots in the right spots."

A memorable fast-break layup by Williams gave Florida its largest lead, 31-16, midway through the first half. He picked off Padgett's pass from the low post and sped the length of the court. Near the basket, he beat two UK defenders, going over freshman Saul Smith, then somehow under Wayne Turner's outstretched arm.

"Nice move," Turner conceded. "I was embarrassed by it because there were two of us."

Tubby Smith punched nearly all the many buttons at his disposal. He tried a small lineup with Padgett at center. He tried a big lineup with Mohammed and freshman Mike Bradley at center and power forward.

Finally, the UK coach settled on the small lineup even though Florida's only experienced inside player, Damen Maddox, was limited to eight minutes because of fouls.

"They did a good job defending the inside," Smith said of Florida's doubling down on the low post. "That's what we wanted to do early in the game. The whole game plan was to go inside."

Three three-pointers by Mills got Kentucky to within 40-34 at halftime.

But Florida opened the second half with the first of its seven three-pointers after intermission.

Asked why Kentucky struggled again to stop the three-pointer, Smith said, "I don't know. You can't teach quickness."

Kentucky closed to within 47-45 early in the second half. But Weaks fast-break layup to relieve the pressure.

Kentucky got to within six late in the game, but Florida hit enough free throws (11 of a possible 20 free throws in the final three minutes) to win.

"Kentucky can just blow you out of the building," said Donovan, who worked as a UK assistant for five seasons under Rick Pitino.

"Getting off to a good start really helped. We made shots. We offensive rebounded and we defensive rebounded. As the game went on, our guys had a little more confidence."

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