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ANOTHER CLOSE SHAVE

Date story published: Sunday, February 8, 2004

Kentucky's penchant for playing last-second, last-shot melodramas continued yesterday. So did the Cats' close-enough-to-automatic ability to win them.

To beat much-improved South Carolina 65-64 and gain first place in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division, the Cats again donned their Alfred Hitchcock persona. The masters of suspense won without leading scorer Gerald Fitch, who sat on the bench in a dark suit because of a strained index finger.

Cue the screenwriters: His replacement, Antwain Barbour, made not one but two key plays in the final two minutes. With his feet slipping out from under him and his backside falling to the floor, he thrust the ball to teammate Kelenna Azubuike outside the three-point line. Azubuike's trey put UK ahead 62-60 with 1:42 left.

After South Carolina answered with its own three-pointer, Barbour took a pass at the baseline and hit a layup while being fouled. His three-point play put UK ahead 65-63 with 1:09 left.

In UK basketball time, an eternity remained. This possession-by-possession time can turn minutes into hours, but it zips merrily by for Kentucky.

"It's nothing to me," Erik Daniels said of his game-saving defense in the final seconds. "Just another play in the game."

No. 9 Kentucky, 16-3 overall and 6-2 in the SEC, used good fortune and heady play to win.

Azubuike's three-pointer came because the referees didn't call luckless Barbour -- remember the palming call at Tennessee? -- for walking on the slip.

"I was hoping they weren't going to blow the whistle," said Barbour, who slipped, in part, because South Carolina covered his intended target, Chuck Hayes, at the basket. "I try not to think of stuff like (jinxes). I don't believe in bad luck."

Trailing 63-62 on the next UK possession, Barbour faked to the top of the key and cut to the baseline because his defender, freshman Renaldo Balkman, had followed him away from the basket on the previous possession.

"A great read," said Cliff Hawkins, whose pass set up Barbour for the three-point play.

No. 25 South Carolina, 19-4 overall and 6-3 in the league, had a chance to tie. But leading scorer Carlos Powell, a 62-percent free thrower, made only one of two with 57.1 seconds left.

South Carolina narrowly missed getting the ball back when point guard Mike Boynton stripped a driving Hawkins. But UK retained possession when Boynton fell out of bounds as he tried to redirect the loose ball to a teammate.

The Gamecocks then got the ball by stealing a Hawkins pass, then called time with 22.5 seconds left to plan the winning play. Kentucky's sound defense twice foiled the plot.

Guard Josh Gonner seemed to free himself for a three-pointer at the top of the key by shot-faking Barbour. But as the UK player flew by Gonner, Hayes positioned himself as a defensive reinforcement.

"With our defense, we have help on those type of things," Barbour said. "You don't worry."

South Carolina Coach Dave Odom said he was surprised Gonner, whose 35 three-pointers rank second on the team, did not shoot. "I thought he had an open shot," Odom said. "He didn't feel he did. I respect that."

Gonner called time with 4.3 seconds left. "I didn't feel like I was open," he said. "I felt like (Hayes) came out with a hand up. I felt like he would have blocked it or I would have shot an angle I didn't want to shoot (from). I didn't see anybody open so I called time out."

South Carolina planned for a Gonner shot off a screen. Plan B held the hope that Hayes would stay near the basket as center/forward Kerbrell Brown faded toward the corner. With Hayes out of range, the Gamecocks would inbounds to Brown, whose perimeter shot sent the Alabama game on Wednesday into overtime.

"Chuck Hayes was too smart for that," Odom said. "Kerbrell did what he could do. We didn't execute well. I take full responsibility."

Daniels was ready. "I knew he'd go right," he said of Brown, "because he'd been going right the whole game. And that's what our scouting report said. Plus he's a catch-and-shoot guy. We wanted him to put it on the floor."

Brown dribbled to the baseline and forced a shot over Daniels that hit nothing but the side of the backboard a split-second before the buzzer.

"I leaned up to like a bad angle," he said. "I had that bad angle because (Daniels) played good, tough defense."

Once more UK Coach Tubby Smith linked his team's experience with its knack for clutch play.

So did Odom.

"Our team played hard enough and, in most cases, well enough to win," the South Carolina coach said. "But this wasn't any game against any team played in just any arena."

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