Date story published: Sunday, January 7, 2001
Dimmed lights. Indoor fireworks. Roaring crowd.
Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith loved the new player introductions in refurbished Rupp Arena last night. "That was outstanding," he said.
The way the evening ended Smith was not so crazy about.
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Missed free throws. Unforced turn-overs. Cautious, bordering on timid play.
At game's end, the closest it came to pyrotechnics was UK nearly blowing a double-digit lead and Smith popping his cork.
Kentucky beat Georgia 67-63 in the Southeastern Conference opener. But the Cats, who led by as much as 15 in the second half and by 11 with barely four minutes left, sweated out their seventh victory in 12 games.
UK made only four of a potential eight free throws in the final two minutes. The Cats, who stopped attacking and seemed to become preoccupied with milking the shot clock, did not made a basket after Saul Smith's three-pointer produced a 61-47 lead with 6:42 left.
Georgia (7-7) closed to within 65-63 with 11.8 seconds left. After freshman Gerald Fitch made one of two free throws, the Bulldogs had a chance to tie it. But perimeter sharpshooter D.A. Layne inadvertently planted both feet inside the three-point line before shooting with four seconds left. He missed what would have been an inconsequential two-pointer.
"I tried to make it a three," Layne said. "But if it was a two, it was a two."
Tubby Smith was anything but flippant about a replay of the too-close-for-comfort finish at Louisville four nights earlier. The Cats lost a 10-point lead in the final four minutes at U of L before winning 64-62.
Another lost lead sent a shiver down Tubby Smith's spine as UK and Georgia fought to the finish.
The UK coach said he was "nervous, scared. And I think it affects the team sometimes. I have to be more patient. Try to be a little more patient and poised."
A moment later, he added, "That's a time to lighten up rather than tighten up."
Georgia led much of the first half. But a rare three-point barrage kept Kentucky close. The Cats made six three-pointers in the first half (or as many as they'd had in six of the previous 11 games).
A huge contribution from Kentucky's bench fueled a 16-2 run in the game's midsection. The Cats scored the final eight points of the first half and eight of the first 10 points of second half. Fitch's three-pointer capped the breakout and put UK up 46-31 with 17:45 left.
But the stretch run soured Kentucky's victory and sweetened Georgia's defeat.
"I liked our resolve," Georgia Coach Jim Harrick said. "I think we could have won if we'd had five more minutes.
"But," he added, "coaches always think that."
Tubby Smith acknowledged that Kentucky stopped attacking offensively down the stretch. He blamed the team's relative youth.
"Guys will retrieve the ball, they take a deep breath instead of playing harder," he said. "They all have a tendency to think, 'OK, the job's almost done. So I'm going to punch the clock and go home.' "
In the final 6:42, Kentucky took only five shots. Two of those -- jumpers by Marvin Stone and Saul Smith -- were rushed attempts with the shot clock down to five seconds.
J.P. Blevins, who provided a big spark off the bench (equaling a season high with eight points), noticed the Cats playing to run out the clock down the stretch of games.
"When we get up by eight or 10, instead of blowing the ball up court, we're holding back," he said. "We're walking it up court, taking 30 seconds off the shot clock. It kind of goes into a kind of lackadaisical mode. It's nonchalant out there. I don't know what the deal is. Mentally we have to be conscious of that and not allow that to happen."
Ideally, Saul Smith said, the Cats should not shoot too quickly down the stretch of close games. UK should take about 23 seconds off the shot clock with each possession, make the opposition play defense and grow anxious enough to foul. Instead, UK grows anxious and winds up with a poor shot. Or, as the tension mounts, the Cats commit turnovers.
Down the stretch against Georgia, a Saul Smith cross-court pass went through Fitch's hands, Smith inexplicably left his feet to make a pass 25 feet from the basket and attempted a desperation pass that Georgia tipped away (Smith retrieved the ball with a diving effort) and Stone's inbounds pass deflected off Smith's hands.
Questions about the stumbling finish prompted Saul Smith to remind reporters of one overriding positive.
"It's not like we lost," he said. "So I'm not going to be mad about it."
But the UK point guard stopped well short of being satisfied with the status quo.
"It's not like it's costing us right now," he said. "But it's getting close."