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PRINCE SHOWS TOUCH IN CLUTCH

Date story published: Sunday, February 18, 2001

NASHVILLE -- Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings had the plan. He repeatedly drove it into his players' heads. All week, he said.

"We just don't want him to beat us down the stretch," Stallings said of Tayshaun Prince. "Just don't let him beat you. Make somebody else beat you."

But those somebody elses, Prince's Kentucky teammates, had a counter plan: Let Prince beat Vanderbilt.

Score yet another one for UK's Prince Plan. Kentucky beat Vandy 79-74 mainly because Prince continued on course to league most valuable player by acclimation.

Prince scored 16 of his team's 23 points down the stretch of yet another maddeningly familiar UK game. Since this one came in Music City, call it the same old tune, a not-so-golden oldie.

The Cats roar to a comfortable lead, this time by 19 points early in the second half. Then the opponent stages an inspiring comeback. This time Vandy, which befuddled UK with a zone defense, actually took two-point leads three times inside the final seven minutes.

With Vandy's first capacity crowd of the season roaring its approval, UK players subtlely appealed to Prince to, well, win the game.

"Tayshaun, we're struggling right now," he remembered them saying when the action slowed for a free-throw attempt or an inbounds pass. "We need a basket. We're going to try to get you the ball."

Prince, who followed Wednesday's career-high 30-point game at Tennessee with 27 here, delivered again and again.

When a backdoor cut put Vandy ahead 62-60, Prince countered with a three-pointer from the right corner.

When Vandy went ahead 67-65, Prince came back to the right corner for his only other three-pointer.

Three free throws, a put-back and his patented baby hook helped Prince score seven more points in the final three minutes.

Prince deflected credit to his teammates after a seventh straight victory improved Kentucky's record to 17-7 overall and a Southeastern Conference best 10-2.

"I know my teammates are looking to get me the ball in that certain point of the game," Prince said. "I can shoot the shots because they're looking for me. They're setting screens for me."

Who else would UK look to? Prince boosted his average in the last six games to 24.3 points.

"He's scorching hot right now," teammate Keith Bogans said.

Actually, Prince struggled much of this day. Muscled by the Commodores, particularly freshman Matt Freije, Prince looked slightly off-kilter while making only two of his first 12 shots and missing his first six three-point attempts.

"It only makes sense that that's the way to play him," Stallings said of the muscling. "I thought we were doing a decent job."

Prince made only seven of 18 shots. "I'll take seven-of-18 from the opponent's best player any night," the Vandy coach said.

However, UK roared to a 45-29 halftime lead because Prince's teammates sliced and diced Vandy's man-to-man defense. "They were getting to whatever spot on the floor they wanted ... ," Stallings said of UK. "It was like a ghost defense."

When Vandy switched to a zone for the second half, UK's offense gave up the ghost. The Cats went almost 10 minutes with only one basket. Vandy reeled off 18 straight points to tie it at 50-50.

"Once they went to that zone, we just got struck," Prince said. "In the second half, their offense got going. Maybe we should have gone to a zone, too. Everybody just looking around, seeing who's going to make a shot for us. Standing around, passing the ball back and forth."

Enter Prince, who scored 16 of his points in the final 8:12.

When Vandy inched ahead, Prince needed no order to go to the corner. "That's our zone offense," UK Coach Tubby Smith said. "They were doing a good job taking away the wings. The corners were open."

"I just had to go there," said Prince, who had spotted where Vandy center Greg LaPointe, hindered by chronic back pain for two seasons, was stationed in the zone. "LaPointe was playing that side of the zone. It takes a while for him to get there. That's why I was able to hit those shots."

Prince shrugged off his cold shooting in the first 32 minutes. "I still had confidence," he said. "The confidence was there no matter what."

After Prince's treys, Stallings tried another tactic to make his anyone-but-Prince plan work. He ordered a box-and-one during a television timeout with 3:01 left. Junior Chuck Moore played Prince man-to-man.

But Moore foiled that plan by fouling Prince away from the ball. Prince hit two free throws to increase UK's lead to 70-67 with 2:45 left. Then, after Moore missed a three-pointer, Prince made a put-back.

Stallings found UK's two possessions against the box-and-one hard to swallow.

"We did some really dumb things," he said. "The ball's on the other side of the floor and we grab him (the Moore foul). Then the ball goes on the backboard, he gets the rebound. That's inexcusable. The one guy you're trying to keep from getting the ball."

Moore had a compelling answer. "I tried to box him out," the Vandy player said. "He's 6-9 and I'm 6-2 1/2. So there goes that right there."

That Prince shredded Vandy's plans moved Saul Smith to nickname Prince.

"Mr. Clutch," he said. "He needs a nickname."

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