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FLORIDA 70 KENTUCKY 53

Date story published: Monday, March 14, 2005

ATLANTA -- Kentucky graciously indulged questions the past week about whether to break from recent custom and cut down the nets after the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game.

Who thought that to find those Georgia Dome nets, the Cats would need to leave the court, turn left down a corridor and make a right into the Florida locker room? The nets were in the front right corner stall, around the neck of -- of all players -- Matt Walsh.

Walsh, the pearl that's irritated UK fans' oyster for three years, acknowledged his own surprise at this ultimate back-at-you: season-high 26 points, a 70-53 victory over Kentucky, SEC Tournament championship and Most Valuable Player award.

"When we were up 14, I thought, 'Oh my God,' " Walsh said.

Thanks to rebounding domination and Walsh's scoring, Florida won the school's first SEC Tournament championship and handed Kentucky its most lopsided defeat since an 81-63 loss at Louisville on Dec. 28, 2002. The margin of defeat equaled the second biggest of Tubby Smith's eight seasons as coach.

That Kentucky led 44-40 with less than 12 minutes left suggested a hangover from Saturday's overtime victory over LSU, arguably the tournament's most riveting game since the UK-Arkansas final in 1995.

When asked about the draining semifinal against LSU, the Cats balked at making an "excuse." But a 21-2 Florida run midway though the second half suggested that Kentucky hit the proverbial wall.

Smith all but conceded the point. "A game like that, that can be very emotional," the UK coach said of the semifinal. "You have such a high, it can be hard to come back."

Kentucky, which lost a fifth time in 30 games and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, trailed 34-27 at halftime and probably felt fortunate not to be further behind.

Rebounding, an area of concern all season, was a glaring inefficiency. Florida dominated the boards, at one juncture holding a 19-6 rebounding edge. The Cats left the floor at intermission without any second-chance points.

"That definitely came back to bite us," Ravi Moss said of UK's rebounding. "We got killed on the boards. Florida got tons of offensive rebounds."

The Gators had almost as many offensive rebounds (13) as Kentucky had total rebounds (14) in the first half. More than once, the public address announcer hesitated to credit a basket because it was difficult to determine which Florida player had dunked the putback.

Kentucky's rebounding absorbed a blow when Chuck Hayes picked up his second foul and went to the bench with 9:38 left. Only Florida's two-for-11 three-point shooting kept the game close.

Led by freshman Randolph Morris, Kentucky reasserted itself around the basket in the second half. Morris contributed six points in a 15-1 run that put the Cats ahead 44-40 with 11:45 left.

"I kept going to the guys, 'Relax,' 'We're fine,' " Walsh said. "We didn't back down at all."

With the fans, a nearly solid sea of blue, screaming for Kentucky to apply the coup de grace, Walsh hit back-to-back three-pointers to put Florida ahead for good. After Anthony Roberson made a fast-break layup, Walsh added yet another basket from beyond the arc to complete an 11-0 run.

Moss interrupted the breakout with a 15-footer. Then Florida scored the next 10 points with Walsh making a leaner in the lane and a free throw.

Kentucky's unraveling included eight straight scoreless possessions (and 12 out of 13). "We just didn't execute," point guard Rajon Rondo said. "We were out there trying to do one on one."

No doubt much to UK fans' consternation, Walsh showcased the value of team play. "He just uses screens well," Moss said. "They set a lot of screens and they know where to find him. It's kind of like Reggie Miller using screens."

Walsh credited his teammates. "Our bigs (front-court players) on the baseline just creamed their guards," he said. "All I had to do was catch and shoot. I always say, shooting is the easy part. The hard part is setting the screen."

No, Matt, the hardest part for UK fans was watching you beat the Cats.

"If I was on Kentucky, I'd say we had the best fans," Walsh said of his feelings about Big Blue Nation. "It's not like I have any animosity toward them.

"I respect Kentucky so much. They play so hard. But there's no crap about their game. They just play hard."

Walsh, who woke up two hours early yesterday because of the chance to play Kentucky, had called Florida's victory over the Cats seven days earlier as the greatest of his life.

When a reporter asked him if that remained true, Walsh said, "C'mon. This is better. See the net around my neck?"

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