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'THREE' WISHES GRANTED

Date story published: Sunday, January 22, 2006

It seemed Kentucky would need a second-string psychologist for the next road trip. Advice from the first Dr. Feel Good apparently had an expiration date.

Then fate intervened to prevent a crushing loss to South Carolina yesterday.

Presumably still aglow with positive thoughts imparted by the first-string psychologist four days earlier, Patrick Sparks and Rajon Rondo hit improbable three-pointers inside the final 32 seconds. Each erased South Carolina leads. Rondo's with 1.4 seconds left gave UK an 80-78 victory.

All you need to know about the role fate played in the outcome was this: South Carolina Coach Dave Odom applauded his team's effort and execution in the clutch.

"I thought our last three defensive possessions, we did well," he said before adding, "I know that sounds crazy."

Given the circumstances, it sounded like good mental health on display.

Kentucky, 12-6 overall and 2-2 in the Southeastern Conference, rallied from a 12-point deficit to bring a seesaw affair (eight ties, 22 lead changes) to its climactic moments. South Carolina took a 76-74 lead with 39.1 seconds left when Tarence Kinsey made two free throws.

About seven seconds into the ensuing shot clock, Sparks rose at the perimeter of the interlocking block letters of "U" and "K" at center court and launched a three-pointer.

"He shot the ball from the Rupp Museum someplace," Odom said. "In a game like this, you like your chances defensively if a guy is willing to take that shot. But he made it."

The shot (Sparks' only basket of the second half of his 14-point game) gave UK a 77-76 lead.

"I'm just glad it went in," UK Coach Tubby Smith said in a tone that suggested disbelief if not outright disapproval. "That's all I can say. No one draws up a shot like that."

Afterward, UK officials produced a tape and officially measured the shot at 29 feet. Or as Rondo noted, "I think he got Tayshaun on that one." Tayshaun Prince made a three-pointer from the other side of the blocked letters in UK's 79-59 victory over North Carolina on Dec. 8, 2001.

But it wasn't the distance of the shot alone that fascinated onlookers. The timing of such a shot so early in a critical possession surely puzzled many, but not Sparks.

"I saw they were in a zone," he said. "We had been moving the ball around, trying to find an open spot. It just happened to come early in the possession."

South Carolina (10-8, 1-4) retook the lead when Antoine Tisby -- a 56.8-percent free-throw shooter who missed his only earlier attempt, and that was his first foul shot in three games -- swished in two with 9.9 seconds left.

South Carolina called timeout to plot an obvious strategy: Prevent Rondo from driving to the winning score. "No secret who was going to get the ball unless Pat Riley showed up," Odom quipped in a reference to the Rupp's Runts reunion staged at halftime.

"There was no doubt that he was not going to take a jump shot," said Kinsey, who guarded Rondo on the play. "The whole night, he took it to the basket. If I'm not mistaken, he air-balled two threes. My main concern was not to let him get to the lane."

Actually, Rondo shot an air ball on his first three-point attempt. The second barely grazed the front of the rim, each taken from near the right corner in the first half. "Just long and short," he said dismissively.

South Carolina wanted to trap Rondo upcourt and make him give up the ball.

"We couldn't get to him," Odom said. "Like all great players, he didn't give it up nor did he give in."

Rondo, who had made only one three-pointer since Ohio on Dec. 30 (and only three since Liberty on Nov. 25), had no intention of giving up the ball.

"I just knew coming out of the timeout I wanted to take the shot," he said. "If I was going to lose, I wanted it all on me."

South Carolina's 2-1-2 zone surprised Rondo and caused him to rule out the planned drive to the basket. He veered toward the UK bench, hounded by Kinsey. At the moment of truth, Rondo took an additional step toward the left corner, pivoted back toward the top of the key and launched a three-point shot.

"I read his feet," Rondo said of Kinsey, "and just made a crossover dribble. I got him off balance a little bit and created enough room for me to get my shot off."

As with Sparks' shot, Rondo's attempt could not be found in UK's playbook. "I'm glad he made the shot," Smith said.

The swish, reminiscent of his game-winning two-pointer against Central Florida (UK's last home victory), came with 1.4 seconds left.

"I thought he was very well-defended ... ," Odom said. "Our players gave everything they had. They chased him around like a yard dog somewhere and he persevered."

Improbably, so did the Freudian Five (aka Kentucky).

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