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EIGHT IS GATOR BAIT

Date story published: Monday, March 7, 2005

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As Kelenna Azubuike released the game-deciding shot, Florida Coach Billy Donovan felt the chill of that old deja Blue. He'd seen Kentucky snatch too many victories from his grasp.

"I'm sitting over there saying, 'Here we go again,'" Donovan said.

Then an odd thing happened. Azubuike missed, thus allowing Florida to claim a 53-52 victory and making Kentucky pay for an unusual inability to make the clutch plays or key defensive stops.

No one had to tell David Lee, the lone star of Florida's Senior Day pre-game celebration, about Kentucky's knack for winning close games.

"How many times have you seen Kentucky win a game on the last shot?" he said afterward. "I can probably tell you 10 games off the top of my head where they've won games like this."

One came here last season when Cliff Hawkins led UK to a come-from-behind victory in the final two minutes.

"Before their last possession we all told each other that there is no way they're getting a second shot," Lee said, "and we had to box everyone out. And that's what we did. It was like a textbook on how to box everyone out."

From Kentucky's perspective, the game was decided by comic-book execution.

The play UK plotted during a timeout with 11.4 seconds left was not an off-balanced Azubuike three-point shot. "But that was what was left," Coach Tubby Smith said. "We didn't have any choice."

The Cats, who finished the regular season at 23-4 overall and 14-2 in the Southeastern Conference, wanted Chuck Hayes to post up for a winning score or get fouled and make two winning free throws. But instead of using a Patrick Sparks screen to gain post-up position on the right side of the basket, Hayes went to the left side of the floor to screen for Sparks.

"Just a miscommunication between me and the drawing board," Hayes called it. The raucous crowd, blaring band and electric atmosphere put plenty of static on any line of communication. "I heard part of it," Hayes said of UK's plan.

The Cats had practiced the play for more than a week, and used it several times in the mid-week victory over Tennessee, Hayes said.

In this case, practice did not make perfect. Yet both sides thought Azubuike, whose struggles (4-for-10 shooting) reflected Kentucky's strain to score, would make the shot with three seconds left.

"It looked good," said Azubuike, whose nine points snapped a streak of five straight double-digit games (and 11 of the last 12). "It felt good. It just came up short."

Florida guard Matt Walsh, who rebounded the miss and flung the ball high into the O'Connell Center's upper deck, said, "When the ball went up, it looked good. I was like, 'Oh my God, don't do this to me.' "

Azubuike's miss capped a problem-filled final minute for Kentucky. Sparks' only three-point basket (in six attempts) gave UK a 52-48 lead with 1:09 left.

"We didn't do a couple of little things," said Smith, who then mentioned a big thing when he added, "like contesting a shot when Walsh shot."

Walsh, who a minute earlier brought his hands to his famous headband in despair over missing a three-pointer, found himself wide open. He did not hesitate in launching a 25-footer.

"We're supposed to make him put it on the floor," said Smith in lamenting the absence of a defender, "especially in that situation."

To the uninitiated, Walsh's shot seemed, at best, ill-advised. But Kentucky knew better than leave the curly-haired Walsh free. "We saw in the scouting report he made a shot at South Carolina (on Feb. 27) from the logo at halfcourt," Bobby Perry said. "He has a lot of range."

With more than 15 seconds left on the shot clock, Sparks penetrated. When the UK guard started up for a shot, Anthony Roberson stripped it away. "It could have been a foul," said Sparks, choosing his words carefully. "He was on my hand. Sometimes that's hard to see."

As Roberson started upcourt, Sparks stopped the Florida guard from advancing with a bump.

"A lot of people would say that's a frustration foul, that I was trying to get the ball back," Sparks said. "My momentum just took me right to him. I just bumped him."

Roberson, an 88-percent free thrower, made both free throws in a one-and-one to put Florida ahead 53-52 with 15.2 seconds left.

Kentucky's failure to execute its final play and Azubuike's miss let Florida snap an eight-game losing streak in the series.

"I don't like to look at it as odds or luck," Perry said of UK's miscues in the clutch. We just didn't do it today. We determined our own fate."

"It's very frustrating," Hayes said. "We just have to make sure it doesn't happen again."

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