Date story published: Saturday, March 10, 2007
ATLANTA -- Freshman Jodie Meeks had missed only two of his 39 free throws since Kentucky played Louisville on Dec. 16. So when he stepped to the line to shoot two free throws with 5.1 seconds left and UK ahead by two points, teammate Bobby Perry sensed a sweet comeback victory over Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
"Jodie Meeks, he won't miss it," television cameras caught Perry saying. "He's money."
Then, unbelievably, the free-throw lane became the exit lane for Kentucky. After Meeks made his first free throw, teammate Sheray Thomas' lane violation robbed him of the chance to clinch the victory. Of that, Meeks, who had made 50 of his last 53 free throws, was sure. "There wasn't any doubt in my mind," he said.
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State made the most of the reprieve. Jamont Gordon's three-pointer at the buzzer tied it, and the Bulldogs then won 84-82 in overtime in a painful replay of UK's what-might-have-been performance this season. Late-game situations, the bane of Kentucky's existence many times this season, left the Cats with a 21-11 record to take into next week's NCAA Tournament.
Even by UK standards of generosity, this defeat stood out.
"It had to be a perfect storm to let this game slip out of our hands," Perry said.
Storm clouds gathered after UK rallied from a 14-point second-half deficit. Proverbial lightning and thunder shook the Georgia Dome when Randolph Morris missed two free throws with 17.7 seconds left in regulation and the Cats leading 75-73.
"That's something that will stick with me for a while," said Morris, who posted career highs with 29 points and 15 rebounds. "If I hit one of those, the game would be over."
Meeks, playing in his hometown, went to the line to clinch it after State missed two shots.
He swished the first. "I thought we had the game won," said Thomas, whose tip-in with 31.1 seconds left in regulation gave Kentucky a lead to protect.
Before Meeks got the ball to shoot the second free throw, Thomas turned his back to the lane to hear instructions from the UK bench.
"Coach (Tubby Smith) told me to get off the lane ..." Thomas said. "I think he just wanted us to get back (on defense) because we were up a couple points.
"I guess it was just the heat of the thing. We all make mistakes. We're up three. He just wanted us to protect the basket."
Thomas moved off the lane as Meeks received the ball, which was a lane violation. When the referees hesitated to make the call, Mississippi State Coach Rick Stansbury charged to near mid-court. "To make sure something happened right there," he said.
"One of the refs, he wasn't going to call it," said Gordon, whose 26 points were one shy of a career high. "The other two decided it was a lane violation."
Smith acknowledged his confusion on when players must be set for a free-throw attempt (when the shooter gets the ball) and took the blame.
"I said to Sheray, 'Back up, Sheray, go back,' " the UK coach said. "At that time, I didn't see the official passing the ball, so it was probably my fault for telling him to move off the lane."
Gordon made the mistake grievous by hitting a three-pointer at the buzzer to send the game into overtime. The Cats did not consider fouling Gordon before he got into position to shoot. "We just wanted to play the three-point shot and not let him get it off," said Ramel Bradley, who sat out all but three seconds of the game's final 7:37. "And he made the shot."
Gordon, whose penetrating drives helped Mississippi State score a whopping 44 points in the paint, called the shot "the best one I ever made."
Kentucky could hardly have gotten off to a better start in overtime. Morris scored while being fouled by State center Charles Rhodes, who left with his fifth foul.
A Morris tip-in gave UK its last lead, 82-81, with 1:18 left in overtime.
After Morris took the ball from Rhodes' replacement, sophomore Vernon Goodridge, the Cats had a lead to protect in the final minute. But Meeks rushed a contested driving layup and missed. "I tried to shoot it really too fast," he said. "I probably was going a little too fast. Mistakes happen."
State rebounded and threw long for a go-ahead layup by freshman Barry Stewart with 24.7 seconds left. Fouled by Morris on the play, Stewart missed the free throw to give Kentucky an opening.
But Richard Delk blocked a driving attempt by Joe Crawford.
Stewart's free throw with 3.7 seconds left set the final score.
After a quick inbounds pass and a timeout, UK inbounded again from halfcourt.
"The last play was definitely designed for Randolph," Crawford said. "He was the No. 1 option."
The Cats hoped to throw an inbounds to Morris in the lane, but State denied that option.
So Perry tried to inbound to Crawford. Stewart deflected the pass away, leading to a scramble for the loose ball as time expired.
Kentucky's unhappy endings
Kentucky is 2-6 in games decided by five or fewer points this season: