Date story published: Thursday, January 9, 2003
KNOXVILLE -- It was an epic game seemingly played to a Wagnerian soundtrack. Such a game demanded a hero and a most unlikely one emerged.
Jules Camara, who lost his starting position earlier this season, seemed all but forgotten as Kentucky and Tennessee did their longtime rivalry proud last night.
Despite sitting on the bench for the first 12 minutes of the second half, Camara scored six straight points down the stretch to help Kentucky beat Tennessee 74-71 in the Southeastern Conference opener for both.
Twice Camara swished foul-line jumpers, his first baskets of the second half. His second put UK ahead for good, 72-71, with 53.1 seconds left in a game that saw neither team lead by double-digit points.
"They left me open," Camara said. "Everybody knows I can knock down that jump shot."
Tennessee Coach Buzz Peterson picked his poison.
"We just didn't want to get hurt inside," he said. "I'd rather see him shoot that than have (Keith) Bogans drive into the lane or the ball go inside."
After Camara's second jumper, Tennessee twice called timeout to set up a hero of its own. The choice was obvious.
"We tried to get a shot for Ron," Peterson said of forward Ron Slay, who leads the Southeastern Conference in scoring (22.6 ppg). "But they locked him up."
The Vols hoped Slay would get free after setting a screen. But UK forward Chuck Hayes never allowed a pass to Slay.
"I just told myself and my teammates, I'm not going to let him (Slay) touch the ball," Hayes said. "If he doesn't have it, he can't score. Just be a nag in his ear."
Tennessee was left with Thaydeus Holden taking an off-balanced leaner in the air that never got to the rim.
After Gerald Fitch made two free throws with 16.5 seconds left to extend the lead to three points, the Cats needed one more defensive stop. Again Tennessee looked for Slay. Again Slay, who led all scorers with 22 points, couldn't get open.
"Just lingering around the top of the key," Hayes said of Slay, who logged 39 tiring minutes in a mentally and physically draining game.
Freshman John Winchester rushed a three-point shot that bounced off the back of the rim.
"When I got on the court, I wasn't thinking of shooting ..." Winchester said. "I wasn't looking to create nothing. Any other time, I'd be thinking of pulling (the trigger), but I was thinking it was going to be a screen and they (Slay or Holden) were going to get something out of it."
Kentucky, which improved to 10-3 overall, benefited from Camara's enduring sense of readiness. When asked about contributing after a long stretch on the bench, Camara noted his last-minute success against Indiana last month.
"I keep in the game the whole time," he said.
Bogans and Slay figured to be the heroes. Bogans, who did not start as punishment for being late to a team meeting Tuesday, scored 16 of his 20 points in the second half.
"He apologized," UK Coach Tubby Smith said, "and I think he showed his apology in the way he played."
Slay scored 12 of his 22 in the second half.
The first half unfolded like a east Tennessee country road: lots of curves and swerves, inclines and declines.
Tennessee led 31-29 at intermission despite going scoreless for more than six minutes.
Or, Kentucky trailed by only two at the break despite playing without its low-post muscle, Marquis Estill, for the final 14:46. Two quick fouls sent Estill to the bench.
Led by Slay, the Vols rushed to a 13-5 lead inside the first five minutes. Slay scored seven of those points. Back-to-back three-pointers in transition by Jon Higgins capped the breakout and gave Tennessee its largest lead.
A zone defense keyed Kentucky's rally. The Cats switched to a 2-3 zone after Estill went to the bench. More telling, the Cats' zone got a boost when Higgins, Tennessee's best perimeter shooter, went to the bench with two fouls at the 13:59 mark.
Without Higgins, Tennessee floundered. After his second three-pointer, the one that put UT ahead 13-5 with 15:29 left, the Vols didn't get another basket until Slay put back an air ball with 8:41 left.
In that span, UK erased the eight-point deficit and twice built leads of five points.
Neither team led by more than five in the second half.
A decisive moment came with 7:38 left. As Hayes posted up Slay, Higgins inexplicably reached in and wrestled the ball from the UK player. The foul call was Higgins' fifth, sending him to the bench for good with 7:38 left.
"That foul might have been a little silly," Peterson said. "If you've got four fouls, you've got to protect yourself."
Said Hayes: "That was huge. Without Higgins, they really have a young backcourt."
Somehow Tennessee persevered until the time came for a hero to emerge.