Date story published: Sunday, December 9, 2001
If you hadn't noticed the interlocking "U" and "K" that marks Rupp Arena's new court, Tayshaun Prince burned that rather pedestrian center-court decoration into Kentucky basketball's memory bank yesterday.
Prince got so hot, his shooting eye got so keen, that after he made four three-pointers in less than two minutes, he stopped at the "U" to apply the coup de grace. His body language saying why not, he launched a three-point shot from the vicinity of center court. "The suburbs of trey-ville," UK radio commentator Mike Pratt said.
And like every other Prince shot in the game's first 15 minutes, it went in. The crowd's appreciative roar rattled eardrums as Prince swished Kentucky toward a 79-59 victory over its archrival in college basketball's dynasty club, North Carolina.
Why would Prince, who equaled his career high of 31 points, dare take a shot from essentially the center circle? And with the game not quite four minutes old, figuratively as far from garbage time as Prince seemed from the hoop?
"Just because of the fact I hit the first four," he said. "When you're in a groove like that, you feel you can hit it from anywhere."
Teammate Keith Bogans, who ebbed (two points on one of nine shooting) as Prince flowed, captured the game's signature moment. "I don't even think Michael Jordan shot it that well in the finals back when they played Portland," he said.
Jordan, after making yet another in a string of improbable shots, turned to the television announcers as he jogged back on defense and shrugged as if to say he could not miss if he tried.
Against North Carolina, Prince was His Heirness to His Airness.
He swished one, two, three, four, five three-point shots in scoring Kentucky's first 15 points. Then he added a sixth three-pointer at the 12:37 mark of the first half to equal his previous career high. That gave him 18 of UK's first 20 points.
After making his first seven shots (six from three-point range), Prince finally missed with 5:05 left in the half. A three-pointer from the right corner disobeyed by bouncing off the far rim.
Prince got his career-high seventh three-pointer with 3:41 left in the half. He dribbled back outside the arc and launched from the left side.
When he missed his next shot, another three-point attempt, Prince smiled and clapped his hands as if to say "I guess it's possible to miss" as he walked to the bench for a television timeout. No. 11 Kentucky was well on its way to a fifth victory in six games.
"Unbelievable," UK Coach Tubby Smith said of Prince's shooting. "I've never seen anybody do that. He was just possessed. Where he was shooting them from was unbelievable. If I was on the North Carolina bench, I'm thinking, 'What's going on?' "
North Carolina, which fell to 1-4 for the first time in its 92 seasons of basketball, indeed wondered.
"I don't remember a guy shooting the ball the way he did," UNC Coach Matt Doherty said. "He hit some ridiculous shots."
Poor Jason Capel, a senior leader on an unusually young Tar Heels' team, had the best -- or perhaps worst -- view of the shooting spree. He was guarding Prince on all but one of the seven three-pointers.
"Did he surprise me?" Capel said repeating the question. "I always knew he was a good shooter. Damn, but he's shooting from half-court. Once a guy gets it going, all you can do is get your hand up. He was shooting right in my face. It was one of those nights, brother."
The Kentucky coach made a telling remark when asked if he had asked Prince beforehand to take personal control of the showdown game. Or if the senior swingman had volunteered to take charge.
"Tayshaun's not that type of player to talk of taking over," Smith said. "That's not his demeanor. That's not him. He's one of the most unselfish players I've had the opportunity to coach."
Prince said he took over because he sensed he had to, not because he wanted to. With center Kris Lang dominating inside, North Carolina took a 4-0 lead and then hung tough. Lang had 14 of his team-high 18 points in the first half.
"I knew how much this game meant to us," Prince said. "I wanted to come out and establish something early. We weren't doing anything right in that first minute of the game."
Prince did more than shoot well (11 of 22 overall, seven of 11 from three-point range). The early shooting seemed to inspire his all-around game. The crowd cheered when the usually laid-back Prince sprinted into a passing lane and deflected the ball out of bounds. Later, he beat a double-team by throwing a cross-court pass that netted a three-pointer by freshman Rashaad Carruth. That gave UK its largest first-half lead, 47-33.
In the second half, Prince proved he would not be muscled out of this game. He hit a baseline flip shot after being bumped hard as he rose off the floor. Later his relentless effort to rebound in traffic was rewarded with two free throws.
"His body's maturing," Smith said of Prince's newfound toughness. "Although it's late, it's maturing."