Date story published: Monday, March 8, 2004
Kentucky being Kentucky, the standard for judging Senior Day fulfillment is sky high. Yet this 39th victory in UK's last 40 home finales seemed as well done as Charlize Theron on the Oscar red carpet.
"Oh man, that was perfect," Chuck Hayes said of UK's 82-62 victory over Florida yesterday. "For us to dominate them and the seniors to play like they did and the ovation they got, it was perfect."
Perfection being perfection, Kentucky's victory inevitably fell short. But those looking for import going into the post-season, these tea leaves told an encouraging tale.
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Looking ahead to a possible game Friday against the Georgia bully Dawgs, Kentucky pushed Florida around. The Cats dominated at the baskets where toughness matters most. A season-high 53-26 rebounding edge and a 40-14 advantage in points from the paint suggested a whole sandbox kicked in Florida's face.
Which was precisely Kentucky's plan. "Oh yeah," said Erik Daniels, who posted a double-double (15 points, 14 rebounds) on his Senior Day. "Those guys, they want to get up and down the court and shoot a lot of threes and get easy buckets. But today, we pushed them out of their offense. They really didn't like it. They didn't respond well to that."
Of course, Georgia did the bullying in twice beating Kentucky this season. This time, UK Coach Tubby Smith got to enjoy being the aggressor.
"I thought points in the paint were big," he said. "That means you're being very aggressive and physically attacking the basket."
Hayes, who had 12 points and 12 rebounds, set a tone by ripping a rebound away from Florida center David Lee and feeding a pass for a Kelenna Azubuike three-pointer.
"I was just in position, perfect position," Hayes said. "I was just hungry on that possession."
Not that he had reason to argue, but Florida Coach Billy Donovan conceded that his relatively small, finesse-oriented team got whipped physically. UK "physically overpowered us and moved us under the basket," he said.
Kentucky, 23-4 overall and 13-3 in the Southeastern Conference, also proved physically superior on the perimeter. It helped greatly that Florida's lone experienced point guard, the dangerous Anthony Roberson, picked up two fouls within 10 seconds and went to the bench at the 18:09 mark of the first half.
The Cats feasted on his backup, freshman Ryan Appleby, and forced Donovan to turn to sophomore wing Matt Walsh for his first point guard duty of the season.
"I made some stupid turnovers," said Walsh, who had seven turnovers of varying intelligence. "But I felt fine out there."
Roberson, who led Florida with 22 points, acknowledged the tough spot he put his teammates, especially Appleby. "It was really tough for him to make decisions," Roberson said. "I think the crowd really got him rattled."
Kentucky's poor shooting kept Florida in the game for a half. But the Cats got hot early in the second half and blew the game open. Unlikely marksmen Antwain Barbour and Daniels joined Gerald Fitch in making UK's first four baskets of the second half three-pointers.
By game's end, Kentucky had made 10 of 30 three-point attempts. That marked the second straight game (and third in the last four) that saw the Cats hit double digits in threes.
UK, though, tried to enjoy too much of a good thing.
With the lead ballooned to 52-29, the Cats began firing away from beyond the arc. That prompted a timeout from Smith.
"We were starting to settle for the outside shot," the UK coach said. "Then when we started getting the ball inside to Chuck and Erik, I thought that opened things up."
Kentucky also botched a couple of fast-break opportunities, again raising a warning flag about the team's inability to ignore prosperity and continue playing with urgency.
"We were trying to hit a home run," Smith said.
"We were trying to make it more difficult than it is. Make the simple play or a simple pass. That's the way I like basketball. Just play it the right way and don't try to showboat."
That imperfection aside, Smith had to like what he saw in this farewell performance.