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THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

Date story published: Sunday, March 11, 2001

NASHVILLE -- Kentucky gave Arkansas a wince and a Prince.

That proved more than enough to advance the Cats to the Southeastern Conference Tournament finals.

After taking Arkansas' best punch (and slap and bump and hack), UK retaliated in kind. That belated aggression, complemented by a silky smooth performance by Tayshaun Prince, propelled the Cats to a come-from-behind 87-78 victory in the SEC Tournament semifinals yesterday.

Arkansas set the stage for a repeat of last year's stunning dominance of Kentucky in the SEC Tournament. In Atlanta last March, the Hogs roared to a 30-12 first-half lead and won 86-72, a margin that matched UK's most lopsided defeat in this event.

Here in Music City, the same old song seemed to be playing as Arkansas zipped to a 40-25 lead late in the first half.

But at halftime, the Cats decided to fight back.

"Last year we didn't reverse roles," point guard Saul Smith said. "In the second half, this time, we went out there and attacked them defensively. We scrapped and held them, pressured and slapped them. Just what they do normally, we did to them."

With a largely Kentucky crowd cheering encouragement, the Cats quickly got back in the game. Then with the score tied heading into the final 10 minutes, UK turned to Prince.

If there were any doubters remaining, the lean left-hander showed again why he was the SEC Player of the Year. He hit his patented baby hook over first Teddy Gipson, then later over Arkansas' main man, Joe Johnson. He beat the double-team by feeding teammate Keith Bogans for a three-pointer. He spotted a cutting Marvin Stone for a layup and three-point play.

"He did his thing again," Smith said of Prince. "Not too many people can block a 7-foot-5 hook shot." That was a slight, but understandable, exaggeration: Prince is a praying mantis-like 6-9.

As for Prince controlling the game from the low post, Smith said, "That's versatility. That's court awareness. That's smarts. That's player-of-the-year type stuff in the SEC. I love him to death."

Prince, whose stat line included 19 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and two blocks, deflected credit to his teammates. Bogans had 23 points for a second straight game here. Freshman Gerald Fitch added a career-high 17 points.

But Stone, UK's other double-digit scorer with 11 points, cited Prince as the pivotal player, literally and figuratively.

"Oh, he was very dominant," Stone said of Prince's play in the low post. "It made it a little easier for all of us. Because they had to double- and triple-team him. If they didn't, he was going to score.

"We basically wanted to get the ball to Tayshaun. It was his show."

First, it was a stage for Arkansas' signature "40 minutes of hell" style of play. The Hogs pressed and harassed UK into 10 first-half turnovers. The last of Arkansas' six first-half three-pointers pushed the lead to its zenith, 40-25, with 3:50 left.

UK (21-9) stayed afloat by scoring seven straight points, five by Bogans, to get the deficit to 42-32 at halftime.

"I definitely thought Kentucky was questioning whether they were going to beat us," Arkansas guard T.J. Cleveland said. "But they got that seven-point run. And they got their heads up and it carried over. If we had closed that first half stronger, it would have been a totally different game. But we didn't and they benefited from that."

The second half was different from the first. UK spent much of the first complaining about calls and non-calls. At halftime, UK Coach Tubby Smith ordered more aggression on defense, more patience on offense.

"They were imposing their will with the hacks," Saul Smith said of Arkansas. "On us and the refs. In the second half, we reversed it. We were imposing the will on the refs."

Arkansas picked up its seventh foul of the second half at the 13:37 mark. UK was shooting the double bonus in the last 10:57.

"That was a big thing in us coming back and taking control of the game," Tubby Smith said.

Arkansas (20-10) acknowledged its more passive demeanor in the second half.

"We got in a mode of just trying to be secure with our lead," Brandon Dean said. "Instead of being aggressive, we tensed up and allowed them to take it to us."

Having had to beat LSU in a taut struggle in the late quarterfinal game Friday night, the Razorbacks cited fatigue as a factor. It was ironic to hear since Arkansas boasted of its pressure defense tiring Kentucky in the Hogs' come-from-behind 82-78 regular-season victory two weeks ago.

"Our legs were gone," Cleveland said, "and they had all the energy in the world."

UK scored the first six points of the second half. In a seven-minute stretch later in the half, UK limited Arkansas to one basket.

It was during that time, Prince took over at the offensive end.

"We kept going back to him," Stone said. "We were going to make them stop it."

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