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Date story published: Wednesday, January 30, 2002

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Kentucky may have had sweeter victories in its glorious basketball history. Maybe more dramatic victories and higher-stakes victories, too. But such a harmonic convergence in one night? Surely that hasn't happened in many Big Blue moons.

Playing with a reshuffled rotation and a passion rarely seen this season, UK beat -- outlasted, really -- No. 5 Florida 70-68 last night.

The victory kept No. 10 Kentucky vital in the Southeastern Conference race, obliterated the bad vibes from last weekend's home loss to Alabama and reminded everyone that UK can be down but never out.

"When we play great teams, we're ready to play," said Tayshaun Prince, who scored 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. "When we play other teams, we're like in relaxation mode."

Florida, which failed to avoid its first three-game losing streak since February of 1998, constituted as big a threat as there is in the SEC.

And if that wasn't enough to make the Cats concentrate, Coach Tubby Smith made good on his promise (threat?) to bench several starters. Keith Bogans, who hadn't come off the bench since his freshman season, Jules Camara and Gerald Fitch sat. Erik Daniels and freshman Chuck Hayes made their first starts. Marquis Estill supplanted Camara at center.

"An attention getter," Smith called the new rotation. "'Hey folks, we can play with you. We certainly don't want to play without you. ...'"

UK's effort showed in a 45-31 rebounding advantage against a Florida team that ranked first in rebounding margin in SEC play (plus 9.5).

"They really didn't box us out much," said Bogans, who swallowed his pride to score a game-high 20 points. "Coach emphasized we had to attack, attack, attack."

UK's defense held Florida to 42.9-percent shooting and a point-total that equaled the Gators' season low.

And Kentucky needed every bit of that to improve to 14-5 overall and 4-3 in the SEC.

UK's leaders -- Prince and Bogans -- came up big. But each missed clutch free throws in the final 30 seconds that could have put away Florida.

Instead, Kentucky had to sweat out whether Brett Nelson, Florida's All-SEC guard, would miss a 15-footer in the final seconds. He did to complete a hot-and-cold night that saw him make four of his first five shots (all three-pointers) and only one of 11 thereafter.

"There's not much you can do," Smith said of Nelson's make-or-break jumper at the end. "Just hope we get the rebound."

At best, Kentucky had a spotty record at crunch time this season. This time a child led UK to the promised land.

Hayes made several clutch plays down the stretch. He scored two baskets. He snatched the ball from Orien Greene with UK clinging to a 64-63 lead. And after Prince missed a three-pointer, Hayes rebounded the miss. With the bonus possession, Bogans hit a three-pointer from the top of the key to put UK ahead 67-63 with 1:28 left.

"Chuck was definitely the player of the game," Prince said. "He got so many offensive rebounds (a game-high five). The game ball definitely goes to him."

Neither team led by more than eight points.

UK again struggled with its shooting. The Cats shot only 41.3 percent. But 12 first-half turnovers kept Florida from establishing more than a 31-30 halftime lead.

The new lineup helped the Cats get off to a much better start than against Alabama last weekend. Even with Nelson hitting four straight three-pointers, UK hung in there. Prince, who had 10 first-half points, steadied UK.

Kentucky's defense grew stronger throughout the half. After weathering Nelson's early storm, the Cats limited Florida to 3-for-12 shooting in the final eight minutes of the first half. The result was the Gators' lowest-scoring first half against an SEC team this season.

With Florida continuing to struggle offensively, UK used hustle to expand its second-half lead. Cliff Hawkins scored on a third-chance opportunity to make it 35-33 UK. A fourth-chance opportunity (a Hawkins put-back) made it 37-33 with 17:07 left.

Kentucky expanded its lead to 47-39 with 13:56 left. After Nelson missed a floater in the lane -- his seventh straight miss -- and then fouled going over the back on the rebound, the Cats seemed primed to build a comfortable margin.

Then the game took a three-point turn. Wide open in transition, Rashaad Carruth missed from beyond the arc. Then Greene hit a three-pointer for Florida.

That ignited the crowd and set up the dramatic finish.

Neither team could take control heading down the stretch. Florida came close. Back-to-back three-pointers -- each a dramatic shot -- put the Gators ahead 59-55 with 6:03 left. Freshman James White rattled in a three as the shot-clock rang. Then Nelson connected, snapping a streak of nine straight misses with his only basket in the final 30 minutes.

But Kentucky was going nowhere this night. Estill's tip-in and a crafty play by Bogans -- he snuck behind Nelson for a steal and sped to a fast-break dunk -- got the Cats even going into the final five minutes.

"The (new) starters really gave us a big lift," Smith said. "They set a tone early by being aggressive. Tonight was an example of the excellent defense we've been playing."

When asked if he's going to stay with the new rotation, the UK coach was noncommittal. "I don't know," he said. "I'll have to evaluate."

No reporter bothered to ask if Smith wanted the Cats to stick with the passion and effort that felled Florida.