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CAPTAINS CLUTCH AT CRUNCHTIME

Date story published: Wednesday, December 9, 1998

LOUISVILLE - A nine-point lead vanished in the final 69 seconds of regulation. The opponent entered overtime surely confident of another of its signature come-from-behind victories this early season.

Against a lesser team, Indiana probably would have won in overtime and made Bob Knight a winner in his 1,000th game as a college coach.

But Kentucky was not that lesser team. Quite the opposite.

"We've always been able to perform under pressure," backup guard Saul Smith said. "We do that the best of anyone in the country."

Smith's words merely echoed Kentucky's gritty 70-61 overtime victory over Indiana last night.

Rather than crumble, the Cats scored the first eight points of overtime. Forward Scott Padgett, whose clutch three-pointer ignited UK's overtime dominance, credited muscle memory and toughness produced by the Comeback Cats' championship run last season.

"Obviously, we played in a lot of tough games last season," he said. "That helps. Any time you wear a Kentucky jersey, you never give up. Until the horn sounds, you give 100 percent."

The same could be said of Indiana, which refused to yield to a Kentucky team that led 51-42 with barely more than a minute left.

In overtime, the experience of Kentucky senior tri-captains made the difference in what UK Coach Tubby Smith called "a great college basketball game.

"I know I got a little grayer," he said. "It was a fun game probably for you guys. But this one was tough."

Although it was a typically bruising, intense Kentucky-Indiana game, the Cats seemed set to pull away and win by a deceptively big margin. Heshimu Evans, who equaled his UK career-high of 22 points, gave the Cats a 51-42 lead with a memorable basket: a fast-break reverse dunk.

But No. 11 Indiana, which had won four times this season with second-half rallies, hit three three-point shots in the final 69 seconds to tie it. Leading scorer Luke Recker, who had 18 points, hit back-to-back treys. Freshman Dane Fife's three-pointer with 1.7 seconds left tied it.

"It all hit at once," UK point guard Wayne Turner said. "I thought, 'Oh, wow! They tied the game up.' We thought the game was over."

No. 5 Kentucky faced not only overtime, but the kind of defining moment Turner 24 hours earlier predicted would come against a rival like Indiana.

"We could either lay down and die or fight and get the win," Padgett said.

Senior captains Evans, Padgett and Turner mandated the latter by scoring UK's first 10 points of overtime.

During that span, IU got only a free throw from Recker, its leading scorer.

Thanks to Evans, Kentucky built a seemingly comfortable 51-42 lead with 1:27 left.

Evans, who matched his UK career high with 22 points, contributed seven points in a 13-2 run that enabled UK to match its largest lead. During the spurt, he hit his third three-pointer, which broke his career high.

Padgett's three-pointer 13 seconds into overtime gave Kentucky the lead for good. Padgett, who only last weekend snapped an 0-for-18 streak from three-point range, shrugged off his clutch shooting.

"There was nothing to panic about," he said. "I was open at the top of the key. That's a natural shot for me."

Smith credited the shot as pivotal in UK's eighth victory in nine games.

"Scott hitting the three-point shot really injected us with energy and effort," the UK coach said. "The first thing about overtime is you want to stay aggressive and attack. We didn't talk of any negative things except we had to do a better job guarding the three."

Defense ruled much of the game. Neither team shot as accurately as 40 percent.

In the first half, both teams scored on two straight possessions just twice.

Knight lauded another solid UK defensive performance. The Hoosiers (8-2) became the fifth UK opponent to shoot less than 40 percent.

"It was very good," the Indiana coach said of UK's defense. "I thought they executed, switched well, communicated. They played very, very well.

"And I thought our defense played pretty well."

Kentucky contained Indiana's two big scorers. Guarded mostly by Evans, Recker did not make a shot in the half-court offense in the first half. His only basket - a leaning fast-break shot from the foul line - came with 6:22 left. It was the first time the Hoosiers had more baskets (five) than UK had blocked shots (four).

For the half, Indiana had seven baskets and Kentucky had six blocks.

UK's top scorers also struggled. The Cats' four players averaging double-digit points - Evans, Turner, Padgett and Mike Bradley -shot a combined 6-for-21.

In defending Recker, Evans answered Smith's call to be a stopper. That he also led UK in scoring showed that the defensive effort would not detract from his offense.

"He left it all on the court with tremendous effort," Smith said of Evans. "That's what he has to do every night to reach his potential."

It might be difficult to match that kind of effort every night. Then again, Evans and the Cats proved again that they can summon the will to do what's necessary to win.

can I say? I'm sore."

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