Date story was published: Friday, March 8, 1985
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - The end, if this was it, did not come easily.
It was with prolonged pain that Kentucky lost 58-55 to Florida, leaving the Wildcats' post-season hopes twisting in the wind.
The problem with yesterday's quick exit - UKs third cameo in the last five Southeastern Conference tournaments - was how unnecessary it all was.
A silly shot here. A foolish foul there. A lead lost. Curtains for the Cats.
"I just wish I could go back and look at the tape and see how it happened," Kenny Walker said.
Joe Hall, his team's NCAA Tournament hopes hanging on a 16-12 thread, wanted to roll some video tape, too.
"I bet you'd see 100 fouls," the UK coach said of Florida's defense on Walker.
Kentucky's main man and the league's regular-season Player of the Year was never left free from defensive attention. Walker scored only 13 points, his second-lowest total of the season (he had 12 against East Tennessee State).
Even more glaring, however, was Walker's field-goal attempts. He had only six.
"When Kenny Walker only gets six field-goal attempts, you are very fortunate," Florida coach Norm Sloan said.
Of Walker's six shots, none was bigger than the put-back he missed in the final 90 seconds.
Florida had just taken a 52-51 lead on Andrew Moten's end-to-end three- point play. Walker skied above a crowd to rebound Troy McKinley's miss. He jumped back into traffic and flicked what used to be called a "baby hook," toward a basket only a scant five feet away.
The ball made a trip around the rim and spun out.
Reprieved yet again, Florida had only to make its free throws to seal a historic Gator victory. Yesterday's game marked the first time a Florida team had ever beaten UK twice in the same season. The Gators beat UK in Lexington 67-55 in January.
"I wasn't surprised," Gator center Eugene McDowell said of Walker's miss. ''I was glad."
Florida, now 18-10, believed it had clinched a bid in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
Late in the first half, Kentucky led by nine and seemed to be the team likley to do any solidifying this day. When Florida missed the front end of three one-and-ones, the Gators appeared a willing victim.
But the Gators would not die. And besides self-inflicted wounds, UK did not thirst for the kill.
"Oh yeah, they let us off the hook," said Vernon Maxwell, who, though a freshman, knew that much. "I just thank God that they did."
Roger Harden threw up a long jump shot in the closing seconds. Freshman Richard Madison, fouled a shooter on the perimeter at the buzzer.
Those plays turned a potential double-digit lead into uneasiness.
"We should have gone in (at halftime) up by nine, possibly 11, maybe 13," said Harden, his flushed face and vacant stare shared by several teammates. ''That hurt us."
Instead, UK was up only 33-26.
The problems with Harden's ill-advised jump shot were two-fold. Harden's shot, besides being too early, left Bearup in position to pick up his third foul off a rebound. The foul would come back to haunt UK in the second half when Randall Leath was popping in jumpers over a defenseless Bearup.
"I had four fouls," Bearup said. "I couldn't do anything. It was the best game I've ever seen him (Leath) play."
The Wildcats still led by four (51-47) and Florida still seemed fated to lose with 3:04 remaining. Just seconds earlier, Francisco Leon had needlessly hung on the rim with a teammate's shot already inside. Leon's eagerness erased a basket.
Florida got to within two, 51-49, when McDowell, whose foul trouble had seemed another good omen, grabbed a loose ball and laid it in with 2:37 left.
The Gators took the lead for good in the next 31 seconds.
UK tried to feed Walker. Someone in the crowd of Gators got a hand on the pass. "It may have been me," Randall Leath said.
Moten, the game's high scorer with 16 points, gathered the loose ball and weaved downcourt.
"I had an opening and wanted to take the ball all the way," the 6-foot sophomore said. "I kind of stepped around (Ed) Davender (at midcourt) and saw an opening."
Only Bret Bearup, standing near the basket, blocked Moten's path. In one motion, Moten tried to slide by Bearup and shoot. The shot fell and so did Bearup, who was called for blocking, his fifth foul.
"I wish they were a little more consistent," Beaup said of the officials. ''I was just standing there. I didn't move."
Moten's free throw and three-point play put Florida up 52-51.
Ahead for much of the game, Kentucky's last chance to regain a lead died when McKinley missed from the corner and Walker's hook rolled out.
"My shot felt good," said McKinley, who was zero for four. "I was running back downcourt, that's how good it felt.
"Then, I saw Kenny get the rebound and thought, 'We'll get the points anyway."'
Instead, Maxwell and Moten each made two free throws in the final 1:18 to preseve the lead. Maxwell threw down a dunk in the end to clinch it.
Kentucky broke open a close game in the latter stages of the first half. But the UK lead at intermission, 33-26, didn't reflect a breakaway because of Wildcat blunders and missed opportunities.
As it was, UK outscored Florida 12-4 in the final six minutes of the half. The spurt, surprisingly without a point by Walker, erased Florida's last lead (22-21) and gave Kentucky its largest first-half leads (31-22 and 33-24).
As was the case in UK's 76-68 victory at Gainesville, other Wildcats picked up the slack for Walker, who was stifled by Florida's collapsing defense.
"In the past, we concentrated on helping out (on Walker)," McDowell said. ''This time we tried to stop him from getting the ball. I think we did a pretty good job."
Winston Bennett, who hit four of eight first-half shots, started the late spurt with a baseline jumper. The shot put UK ahead 23-22 with 5:44 remaining.
The Cats added eight straight points before Florida could score again (Moten hit two free throws).
When Harden hit a 15-footer with 1:28 left, Kentucky led by nine again (33-24 ) and seemed assured of a comfortable halftime margin.
Then the Wildcats played giveaway.
A walking call gave UK the ball following Harden's basket, and with no shot clock in the tournament, the Cats appeared willing to wait for a last-second shot and a possible double-digit lead.
But Harden fired from the right corner with 16 seconds remaining. The shot missed and Bearup picked up his third foul.
"I thought it was under 10 seconds," Harden said. "It was my fault. No point guard should make that mistake, especially a junior point guard."
UK dodged that bullet when Moten missed the front end of a one-and-one (the Gators missed three front ends in the final 2:31).
But the Cats weren't so lucky when they committed another gaffe.
After Davender missed a front end with 14 seconds left, the Gators were working for the last shot. Pat Lawrence, taking his only shot of the game, let fly a 17-footer at the buzzer. Madison rushed out and clipped his arm.
Lawrence made both free throws to set the halftime score.
"I just wanted to scare him," Madison said.
Later in the afternoon, it was UK that appeared uneasy.