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CATS OVERCOME GATORS, LATE-GAME JITTERS

Date story published: Sunday, March 9, 2003

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- From Team Turmoil to Team Supreme.

Kentucky completed that startling one-year transformation by outlasting Florida 69-67 yesterday.

No. 2 UK, which became only the second team since 1956 to go undefeated in Southeastern Conference play, took the best shot the nation's No. 3 team could deliver. Not only was it Florida's Senior Day, but the Gators got 11-for-14 shooting and 25 points from its supposedly injured leading scorer, senior Matt Bonner. Spurred by the memory of a humiliating loss in Rupp Arena last month, Florida made 52.8 percent of its shots, outrebounded Kentucky 32-31, amassed 20 assists (a season high for a UK opponent) and became only the third opponent in the Cats' 20-game winning streak to have more assists than turnovers (15).

The thought of spoiling Kentucky's quest for SEC perfection moved a school-record crowd of 12,581 to fill the O'Connell Center with ear-aching screams.

And still Kentucky won.

"We've hung tough all year," Coach Tubby Smith said, "none tougher than today."

The Wildcats, 26-3 overall and league champions at 16-0, did not trail in the game's final 31 minutes and 43 seconds. That updated an eye-opening bit of evidence that reflects UK's dominance this season: In the second halves of the last 14 games, the Cats have trailed for less than four minutes.

That unfamiliarity with stress -- in stark contrast with the stormy seas that made Team Turmoil bob like a cork in a whirlpool last season -- showed.

After repeatedly making clutch plays to keep Florida at bay, Kentucky got jittery down the stretch. A Gerald Fitch three-pointer, part of his team-high 18-point output, gave the Cats a 66-54 lead with 6:48 left. UK did not score another basket and went scoreless on seven straight possessions. Missing three of six free throws in the final 38.6 seconds further complicated matters.

"I wasn't worried at all," forward Erik Daniels said. "I knew we were going to pull it out. We had a little trouble, but I knew we were going to pull it out."

Florida scored 11 straight points, seven by Bonner, to close to 66-65. After Fitch babied a short baseline jumper that weakly bounced off the rim, the Gators looked to take the lead.

Freshman Christian Drejer, the Danish import, drove the baseline. UK center Marquis Estill moved in his path and tumbled to the floor as the players made contact. The charging call made moot Drejer's pass that netted a layup for teammate David Lee with 58 seconds left.

"That was probably the biggest play ... ," Smith said. "He sacrificed his body and that's what he's supposed to do."

Estill acknowledged a doubt about whether a charge would be called.

"I really didn't think I was going to get it," he said. "But he (referee Mike Stuart) saw me looking at him. I made eye contact with him, so he gave me the call."

Stuart's call irked Florida Coach Billy Donovan.

"I told Mike Stuart, you've got a lot of guts to make that call with all the 'physicalness' that's going on," he said. "I just don't know how you make a call like that at the end of the game. I don't understand it."

Kentucky, which snapped the nation's sixth-longest active home winning streak at 19 games, gave Florida chances. After Chuck Hayes made one of two free throws to make it 67-65, Drejer hung in the air without a clear plan in mind and had a desperate pass deflected away by Hayes.

Two Fitch free throws and a driving layup by freshman Anthony Roberson kept the margin at two points (69-67) with less than seven seconds left.

Again, UK missed a chance to seal the victory when Keith Bogans missed two free throws off the front of the rim with 5.8 seconds left.

"I wasn't nervous at all," he said. "It was just a matter of putting my legs underneath the shots. I've been playing this game too long to be nervous."

Roberson, whose chattiness frequently annoyed and motivated UK this season, got the chance to tie it or win it. His three-pointer from the top of the key beat Georgia here in January and he looked for a similar shot.

UK's best defender, Cliff Hawkins, who had been beaten on Roberson's driving layup the previous possession, had a plan in mind.

"I was just trying to stay in front of him," Hawkins said. "If he made a shot, it would be one with a hand in his face."

Roberson dismissed Hawkins' defense as a non-factor. "I think I created a lot of space (for the shot)," he said. "I gave him a little one step and just pulled up. He's not as tall as me, so I knew he wasn't going to block it."

Roberson, who scored 12 points, missed badly: short of the rim and to the left.

"Because I was rushing to get a shot," he said. "I didn't know the time."

As always this SEC season, the final seconds counted down to Kentucky time.

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