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NERVES OF STEAL

Date story published: Wednesday, February 4, 2004

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Kentucky's 68-65 victory against Florida last night proved that eyes are more than the window to the soul. Eyes also are the gateway to a thrilling come-from-behind victory.

The eyes of UK point guard Cliff Hawkins and Florida forward Christian Drejer converged on the pivotal moment in UK's victory here.

Capping a Kentucky rally from an 11-point deficit inside the final seven minutes, Hawkins stole Drejer's cross-court pass against a press, then hit a layup over center/forward David Lee to give UK a 66-65 lead with 1:14 left.

"I was just reading his eyes," Hawkins said. "The eyes tell everything."

What Hawkins saw was a Florida player anxious about a dwindling lead and forced to a Plan B because Kentucky had cut off the normal second pass against a press: Back along the baseline to the inbounds man.

"He kind of got back on his heels," Hawkins said. "Like I did against Vandy."

Hawkins made the ill-timed turnover in Kentucky's loss at Vanderbilt last weekend. In fact, he made three down the stretch.

Despite a solid floor game (no turnovers in 33 minutes) and the game-winning steal, Hawkins refused to take any bows.

"Hero?" he said, repeating the goat-to-hero themed question. "I don't think I'm a hero. I had a good floor game. But I could have had an excellent game if I made my free throws."

Hawkins made only four of 11 free throws. But that many attempts were a plus in a game that saw Kentucky answer Coach Tubby Smith's demand to get to the foul line.

Kentucky, 15-3 overall and 5-2 in the Southeastern Conference, made 26 of 40 free throws. That marked the Cats' highest total of free-throw attempts since going 30-for-40 against Arkansas in the 2001 SEC Tournament.

"We really harped on that," said Smith, whose team took only nine at Vandy. "Our coaches put on pads and knocked and grabbed and held and tried to foul them."

The toughening worked, especially down the stretch. UK made 16 of 24 free throws in the final 9:18.

Another of Kentucky's signature seesaw games saw the Cats limit the SEC's most prolific scoring team to seven points in the first 10 minutes and 11 points in nearly the first 14 minutes. The defense also gave UK three first-half leads of 10 points.

Florida, which came into the game averaging 80.2 points, went more than eight minutes without a basket in one stretch. After a Anthony Roberson three-pointer at the 17:37 mark, the Gators didn't make another shot until Adrian Moss hit a foul-line jumper with 9:20 left.

However, three-pointers got Florida within 33-29 by halftime.

Kentucky's defense disappeared early in the second half. Florida made six of its first seven shots and got points on nine of its first 12 trips downcourt.

A post-up basket by David Lee, his first hoop of the game, got the Gators rolling. Another Lee post-up gave Florida its first lead, 40-39, with 15:24 left.

That second post-up basket was part of a 14-0 run that gave Florida a 47-39 lead.

Like in victories at Mississippi State and Tennessee, the Cats faced imposing obstacles. Florida thoroughly outplayed Kentucky for much of the second half. The Gators' lead crested at 59-48 lead with 6:41 left. The lead still stood at 65-57 with 2:57 left.

"I wouldn't say we were desperate," UK forward Chuck Hayes said. "But we had a big hole to dig out of. We had them against us and we had time against us."

Florida, which lost for the fifth straight time against Kentucky, did not score another basket after Matt Walsh's pullup jumper established the 59-48 lead. UK scored the game's final 11 points, six coming at the foul line.

"I think in the last five minutes, our guys played not to lose," said Florida Coach Billy Donovan, whose team fell to 13-6 overall and 4-4 in the SEC.

"We picked up the defensive intensity," Hawkins said. "They really kind of folded when we put the pressure on."

The comeback from the 65-57 deficit began with a Kelenna Azubuike three-pointer with 2:37 left. It was the first -- and only -- UK shot from outside the paint to go in the second half.

"What started us was when Kelenna made that big three," Hawkins said. "It gave us the extra light that we could win the game."

Florida missed three shots and committed three turnovers in the final 2:30.

The third turnover came when Walsh stepped out of bounds dribbling upcourt against Azubuike in the final few seconds.

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