Date story published: Sunday, January 13, 2002
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Irony took the form of a Cliff Hawkins game-winning shot here yesterday. Personal redemption and team revival, too.
Hawkins, whose near monopoly on clutch shots in recent defeats sent Kentucky basketball into runaway second-guessing last week, came through against South Carolina. His contested leaner in the lane with 3.4 seconds left gave UK a 51-50 victory.
The shot saved Kentucky from its first 0-3 start in Southeastern Conference play since 1966-67. As a capper to coming through in the clutch in triplicate (the sophomore point guard made UK's last three baskets), the game-winner also dimmed the importance of Hawkins' recent struggles.
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"People, I guess they lost faith in him," teammate Keith Bogans said. "Because he didn't make the shots in the last two games. But he's the type of player, he doesn't really care what people think as long as the coach knows what he can do and his teammates know."
UK Coach Tubby Smith labeled Hawkins' struggles (1-for-9 in the loss to Georgia Wednesday and misfires in losses to Mississippi State and Duke) and his successes as routine for a developing player.
"He took a couple of questionable shots (in recent games)," Smith said. "But it takes a while for guys to grow up. Now he's in the limelight. I tell him all the time: Guys like Tayshaun (Prince), Keith (Bogans), Gerald (Fitch) and Cliff, now the spotlight's on them. Like with Saul (Smith) last year when he was blamed for a lot of things. Now it's time to step up and make those plays, and it just takes time."
Pre-game talk had UK, now 10-4 overall and 1-2 in the SEC, looking to corral Hawkins and place the ball (and its fate) with Prince, its All-America candidate at decisive moments.
Coincidentally or not, Hawkins did not take a shot until he hit a leaner in the lane with 12:48 left in the second half.
He denied that his six shots, his fewest since Dec. 15, had anything to do with last week's talk. "I was just playing the game," he said. "I knew the shots were going to come."
Few shots came easily as both teams played inspired defense. UK's 22 baskets were its fewest since making 19 in the season's opener against Western Kentucky. The Cats' 51 points marked their lowest total since a 46-45 loss at Michigan State on Dec. 16, 2000.
But UK's defense made up for a balky offense and 20 turnovers. The Cats, who got scorched by Georgia on Wednesday (54.1 percent shooting), held South Carolina to 32.1 percent shooting.
Still South Carolina, 10-5 overall and 0-2 in the SEC, led throughout most of the second half. As if foretelling things to come, Hawkins' first shot reduced the Gamecocks' largest lead: 38-30 with 13:02 left.
After a Fitch putback closed the deficit to 47-45 with 3:35 left, Hawkins went to work. His put-back of his own miss tied it at 47 with 2:57 left.
Free throws put South Carolina ahead 50-47 with less than a minute left, setting up just the kind of make-or-break, possession-by-possession drama that has troubled UK recently and sparked "less Hawkins, more Prince" talk.
Hawkins got the Cats within 50-49 when he hit a one-handed 10-foot leaner from the left side. It was just the kind of shot Smith said he should have shot at the end of regulation at Mississippi State last weekend. Instead he penetrated to the basket, where State's collapsing defense prevented a shot.
"I don't think that shot is that difficult," Hawkins said of its off-balanced nature. "That's the type of shot I like to take in traffic."
South Carolina center Marius Petravicius, a 70.6-percent free- thrower who had made five of six earlier, gave Kentucky a chance when he missed the front end of a one-and-one with 28.1 seconds left.
After Rolando Howell nearly stole the ball from Prince, UK called time with 16.9 seconds left to do what it said all week it wanted to do in these situations: Get the ball to Prince.
The plan called for Prince to lose Howell's tight defense with a backdoor cut, take a pass from Hawkins and score. Or, failing that, post up for an entry pass.
But Howell, who held Prince to a season-low eight points, covered both.
"I was open," Prince said of the backdoor cut, "but the thing about it is that's a tough pass to make. I don't think Cliff wanted to take the chance."
Hawkins unwisely picked up his dribble outside the three-point line and had few good options as South Carolina's Jamel Bradley closed in.
Then Bradley, who led all scorers with 19 points, made an unwise move. He slapped the ball from Hawkins' grasp, thus allowing the UK guard to begin dribbling again.
"Yeah, I was concerned about getting the ball to somebody to get a shot up because time was running out," Hawkins said. "But once he knocked the ball out of my hands, I pretty much had my mind made up."
Hawkins drove into the lane and hit the game-winner, his first since his junior year of high school.
"I thought we were in great shape because we had stopped the first surge," South Carolina Coach Dave Odom said, meaning Prince's backdoor cut. "You think of Cliff at the end of the Georgia game where he's dying with the ball in his hands. And there he is again. But this time it went in."