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FITCH IN TIME SAVES BYE

Date story published: Sunday, March 3, 2002

Kentucky punctuated its year of living dangerously by -- what else? -- living dangerously on Senior Day yesterday.

With a share of the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division championship at stake, Kentucky and Florida battled to the game's final possession.

This time good fortune wore blue and white as UK out-executed Florida in the clutch to pull out a 70-67 victory.

The Cats won -- and avoided a first-round game in next weekend's SEC Tournament -- because:

* Cliff Hawkins, a 37.4-percent shooter in SEC games this season, hit a 12-footer with 1:37 left to tie it at 65-65.

* Gerald Fitch, playing for the first time in two weeks, hit the go-ahead three-pointer with 33 seconds left.

* Hawkins, a 47.5-percent free thrower in SEC games, hit two free throws with 12.4 seconds left to set the final score.

After Florida's Matt Bonner missed a makable three-pointer in the final seconds, UK improved its records to 20-8 overall, 10-6 in the SEC and 6-6 in games decided by seven points or less.

"I'm holding up great when we win," UK Coach Tubby Smith said with a smile. "I get juiced when we win, now. I'm holding up extremely well."

Florida, which blazed out to an early 13-point lead to begin this most entertaining send-off to UK seniors Tayshaun Prince and J.P. Blevins, fell to 21-7 overall and 10-6 in the SEC.

Neither team led by more than eight in the final 28:40 as the game grinded toward a nail-biting finish.

Brett Nelson, whose two early three-pointers sparked Florida's 10-for-12 shooting (5-for-5 from three-point range) at the start, hit his fifth three-pointer to give the Gators a 64-61 lead with 2:30 left.

Florida led 65-63 when Hawkins, the player opposing defenses invite to shoot, swished his tying shot.

"I'm confident in myself," Hawkins said. "I consider myself a clutch player. Other people might not think so. But I think when the time comes to make plays, I'm capable of making plays."

Two Justin Hamilton free throws put Florida ahead 67-65 with 1:15 left. After Marquis Estill (who battled all-SEC center Udonis Haslem to a standstill) missed two free throws, the Gators sensed victory. But Bonner passed up an open 10-footer, then walked as he indecisively dribbled into the lane despite being guarded by the much shorter Keith Bogans.

"I want them being fearless down the stretch," Florida Coach Billy Donovan said. "Bonner posting up on Bogans where he travels, that wasn't fearless. Go score! Even if you miss it, still go back and play defense. We didn't even get a shot up."

During a timeout with 39.8 seconds left, Smith called not on Prince, the reigning SEC Player of the Year, but Fitch.

"Well, he had done it before," the UK coach said. "He did it at Tennessee. He'd done it about three times this year when we needed threes."

Fitch, who had been sidelined while serving two suspensions (a scuffle with a teammate and then a citation for using faked identification to try to enter a Lexington bar), had an immediate reaction to being asked to deliver in the clutch.

"I was surprised," he said. "But at the same time, happy and anxious. I told myself when I came back, I wanted to do something big."

Prince, who beat Florida here last season with his patented baby hook, gladly deferred.

"I wasn't mad at all for the simple fact every time we ran that play, we've made the shot," he said. "Everybody on the Florida bench figured I was going to get the ball. Rupp Arena wanted to see Tayshaun make the last shot. They wanted to see me shoot it, win or lose."

But when Donovan noticed Prince as the inbounds man, the Florida coach recognized the play and Fitch as the shooter.

"Tubby goes to the same sideline out-of-bounds play all the time ... ," Donovan said. "We knew what they were running. It's the play they run and they did a good job executing."

Screens by Prince and Estill separated Fitch from defender Orien Greene. Fitch caught the ball, squared his shoulders and hit the three-pointer to put UK ahead 68-67.

"I've got to be honest with you," Donovan said. "When he pulled up and let it go, I felt that was great because I didn't want Prince or Bogans shooting the ball."

After the teams exchanged timeouts with 29.3 seconds left, Florida went to its hammer inside. Better still, UK's defensive switch on a screen left Haslem guarded by Hawkins, or 8 inches of mismatch. The Gators got the ball to Haslem. UK's collapsing defense maneuvered Haslem under the backboard. As Haslem readied to shoot, UK freshman Chuck Hayes knocked the ball from his grasp. Haslem inadvertently stepped out of bounds as he retrieved the ball.

"We got exactly what we wanted to get at the end," Donovan said. "Udonis just needed to jump as high as he can, as hard as he can and just dunk it."

After a UK timeout, Florida quickly fouled Hawkins with 12.4 seconds left. The Gators called a timeout before Hawkins shot two free throws.

"I know in the huddle Florida was saying you want to foul a guy like Cliff Hawkins," Hawkins said. "I just had it in my mind that I was going to make the free throws. That was the end of that."

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