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NCAA TOURNAMENT: ALABAMA-BIRMINGHAM 76, KENTUCKY 75

Date story published: Monday, March 22, 2004

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Kentucky had been synonymous with close-game victories this season. So imagine the surprise when a nail-biter left UK on the sidelines in this year's NCAA Tournament.

"I'm really shocked," walk-on Ravi Moss said after UAB beat the Cats 76-75 yesterday. "Stunned. Frustrated. All of the above."

The second-round upset marked Kentucky's earliest exit from an NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed since 1980 (a 55-54 loss to Duke in, of all places, Rupp Arena). But the real surprise was how Alabama-Birmingham dispatched Kentucky. The Blazers out-clutched the Cats, which is akin to out-fundraising George W. Bush.

UAB, which advanced to this week's region semifinals in St. Louis, made the clutch shot. Mo Finley hit a 17-footer with 12.2 seconds left to set the final score.

Kentucky, which was 7-0 in games decided by five points or less this season, missed the potential game-winner. Senior guard Gerald Fitch, Mr. Clutch himself, fired an open three-pointer off the back of the rim.

"We couldn't ask for a better shot," teammate Chuck Hayes said in a UK locker room filled with muffled conversation and teary eyes. "You've got one of the best shooters in the country. You can't ask for a better shot."

Kentucky (27-5) rallied from its largest deficit of the season, 37-24, and biggest halftime deficit. Those looking for omens noted that UAB's 42-33 lead represented the Cats' largest deficit since falling behind 45-26 against Marquette in last year's NCAA Tournament.

Sparked by two Moss three-pointers, Kentucky charged back against the quicker Blazers. Two Fitch free throws put UK ahead 57-56 with 9:49 left. That marked the Cats' first lead since 17-15. Kentucky's lead reached its game-long zenith at 69-63 when Fitch hit a three-pointer with 5:06 left.

Kentucky seemed poised to win the game. But poised turned out to be the wrong word for the normally steady Cats.

Ahead 71-67, UK called time with 2:19. But after the timeout, Hayes couldn't inbounds the ball. The five-second call gave UAB the ball.

"They just defended us well," Hayes said. "They didn't give us any passing lane and the ref was counting."

No damage seemed done when UAB's Demario Eddins missed a driving shot. But the Blazers got a second chance when UK's Erik Daniels couldn't control the rebound.

"I threw the ball away," a red-eyed Daniels said. "I got the rebound and threw it away."

UAB point guard Carldell "Squeaky" Johnson intercepted Daniels' pass and fed Eddins for a layup.

After Kelenna Azubuike charged into Gabe Kennedy in transition against UAB's pressure, Finley hit a rainbow three-pointer from the left corner to put the Blazers ahead 72-71 with 1:38 left.

The teams traded big baskets in the next minute. Hawkins, as competitive as ever despite obvious back pain, put the Cats ahead 73-72 with a pull-up jumper. Kennedy answered by banking in a 10-footer with the shot clock inside five seconds and the game clock at 48.6.

Kentucky regained the lead at 75-74 with 29.4 seconds left when Azubuike dunked a rebound home.

After a Kentucky timeout, the teams got about deciding the winner and loser.

UAB wanted Finley, its leading scorer, to take the shot from the left corner again. "Our intended play didn't work," Johnson said.

Ironically, the Blazers improvised, a Kentucky specialty this season. Finley, one of UAB's four fifth-year seniors, tried to drive. Cut off, he passed to Johnson, who penetrated to the baseline before whipping a pass back to Finley standing alone near the three-point line.

"I thought, man, how did he get wide open like that," Johnson said. "They must not have done the scouting report."

Actually, UK cut off Johnson's drive and Hayes rotated toward Finley.

"When I saw Chuck Hayes coming, that's a big guy," said Finley, who led UAB with 17 points. "I knew he wanted to block a little guy's shot. That would have been all over SportsCenter. I actually thought pump fake."

After Hayes flew by, Finley swished the shot over Hawkins' outstretched arm with 12.2 seconds left.

Kentucky didn't need to improvise on the game's final sequence. As planned, Hawkins came off a screen, penetrated and passed to an open Fitch on the left wing.

"I thought we won," Moss said, "because that's what you think when Gerald shoots the ball."

Hawkins knew better. "I took him out of his shot a little," the gutty point guard said. "I couldn't pass across my body as hard as I wanted and it affected his rhythm."

Fitch's shot was on line, but a tad long.

"You know, that's the shot I was supposed to make," he said. "That's how I feel. I just didn't make it."

Kentucky got two desperation tips by Hayes and Daniels. Neither came close.

"They made plays," Hayes said. "we made plays. But they had the last one."

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