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VOLS KO CATS IN CLUTCH

Date story published: Monday, March 1, 1999

KNOXVILLE - After Tennessee's 68-61 victory over Kentucky yesterday, after the UT students stormed the court, after he cut down basketball nets for the first time in his life, Brandon Wharton called his teammates to attention in the locker room.

"This is just the start," the Vols' leading scorer reminded them.

That kind of leadership would have sounded familiar had Kentucky's players been within earshot. And Wharton's big plays in a big game looked familiar, too.

of confidence. They're calling his plays. And he's delivering."

Wharton, a senior who lived in Louisville until he was 9 years old, grasped the post-season significance of the Sheppard analogy.

"I hope he's right," Wharton said of Smith. "I'll say this: Even though this was a great game for us, we can play a lot better. I'll tell people all the time: We lost to Kentucky by six points in Rupp Arena in February (of last season) and that wasn't the same (UK) team that won the NCAA Tournament. I just hope we can do the same thing this year."

Wharton's Sheppard-like play rescued Tennessee from the pain of a loss to Kentucky on Senior Day with the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division championship at stake.

Instead, the pain belonged to UK. The Cats fell to 22-8 overall and an 11-5 second-place finish in the East. UT finished the regular season at 20-7 overall, 12-4 in the East and arguably better than Kentucky based on its first series sweep since 1979.

"You can't say they're not," UK forward Scott Padgett said.

Trailing 44-35 with barely 13 minutes left, Wharton made back-to-back three-point shots to steady the Vols. Then he tied up Padgett, which gave the Vols an extra possession and ultimately two more points.

Later, Wharton hit a leaner in the lane and then fed Kentuckian Isiah Victor for a dunk.

"He took over when they needed it," Padgett said. "He came up hitting threes and making big plays. Stuff that we went over in the scouting report. Good players, when they get on a roll, they can make plays."

With backcourt mate Tony Harris contributed game highs in points (18) and assists (seven), Wharton made sure Tennessee made the plays at crunch time.

Kentucky, which spent much of the previous few weeks working to improve its ability to come through in the clutch, faltered again. Sifting through the reasons , Smith noted an old bugaboo: 20 turnovers, which equaled a season high.

Tennessee took a nonchalant approach to Wharton's shot-making even though he went scoreless in the game's first 16 minutes.

But after calling a timeout with 13:27 left, Tennessee used Wharton's shooting to quickly eat into UK's largest lead: 44-35. Wharton sandwiched three-pointers around a UK basket to cut the deficit to 46-41.

Asked about Wharton's clutch shooting, Tennessee Coach Jerry Green said, "Well, we expect him to (make them)."

Green apparently reminded Wharton of those expectations during the timeout. "Coach Green said he was going to run some plays for me and he wanted me to knock those down," Wharton said. "That's what you've got to do as a senior. There's no next year."

Kentucky did not wilt. But ill-timed mistakes kept victory from the Cats

"I thought we had a gallant effort today," Smith said. "Every category we played OK other than turnovers."

Nursing a 51-46 lead, UK gave up the ball when Padgett walked while trying to inbounds the ball. Confusion reigned because the shot clock failed to re-set to 35 seconds after Tennessee's C.J. Black made a free throw. Instead it showed 15 seconds after Padgett inbounded the ball.

Referee Curtis Shaw ordered play halted to re-set the clock. When handed the ball back for another inbounds, Padgett could not move. But he did.

"I told him (hold your) spot," Shaw could be heard explaining to Smith.

"I thought I could move," Padgett said. "I should have asked. I don't think I'll ever have another turnover like that."

Tennessee made it a costly mistake when Harris hit a three-pointer to reduce UK's lead to 51-49.

Tennessee took the lead for good when Harris fed a 25-foot lob that Victor dunked. It put the Vols ahead 57-55 with 4:09 left.

UK got to within 62-61 on Saul Smith's driving basket with 1:04 left. But UK did not score again.

Thereafter, the Cats missed four shots and had a fifth. The misses were a rushed three-point shot from freshman Desmond Allison, Smith's driving attempt desperation three-point heave and Ryan Hogan's inconsequential leaner in the final seconds. A moment earlier, Black blocked Hogan's three-point shot.

When asked why Kentucky struggled again to find a Wharton-like performer, Padgett had a ready answer.

"Experience," he said. "Experience. Experience means a lot, man. When you've got experience, you don't panic when you get a defender in your face. Experience makes a lot of difference."

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