- Tuesday, February 3 2004 -
Kentucky - 68 (Head Coach: Orlando Smith) - [Ranked 9th by AP and 9th by ESPN/USA Today]
Florida - 65 (Head Coach: Billy Donovan) - [Ranked 21st by AP]
Halftime Score: Kentucky 33, Florida 29
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|Vanderbilt 60 - 66|||||South Carolina 65 - 64|
Game Writeup - Written by and courtesy of Matt May; Kentucky Sports Report, (All Rights Reserved)
HEART AND SOUL: Cats win comeback thriller
GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Staring down its first losing streak in over two seasons, Kentucky erased an eight-point deficit in the final three minutes to score a 68-65 comeback victory over rival Florida at the O'Connell Center.
The Cats (15-3, 5-2 SEC) scored the game's final 11 points to escape an incredible environment and possibly spark the team after a tough loss at Vanderbilt and a near crushing loss before 12,330 Florida fans. Instead, UK continued its dominance over the Gators (13-6, 4-4), claiming its fifth consecutive victory in the league's preeminent rivalry.
"It was a great comeback," UK coach Tubby Smith said. "We showed a lot of poise and a lot of character to hang in after losing the lead. They are a much younger team and I thought late in the game, our veteran saviness came through for us. We made clutch plays down the stretch and forced some turnovers."
Things looked bleak for UK as late as the 2:57 mark, when two Matt Walsh free throws gave Florida a 65-57 lead. The Cats had already closed a 59-48 gap to 59-54, but senior Cliff Hawkins missed two free throws and Florida extended the lead back out.
But after Walsh's free throws, Florida didn't score again, and the Gators had just one field goal over the final 6:41 of the game. Instead of putting the ball in the basket, Florida put the ball in the hands of UK with an endless parade of fouls, difficult shots and turnovers.
The final UK run began when sophomore Kelenna Azubuike, who had been struggling with his deep shot, swished a three-pointer from the left wing with 2:39 left after Erik Daniels rebounded his own miss to save the possession. After an Adrian Moss miss, Daniels hit two free throws to cap his 22-point night to pull the Cats to 65-62 at 1:50 remaining.
The first of two critical Christian Drejer turnovers started there, when he threw an entry pass intended for David Lee wide and out of bounds. Chuck Hayes made two free throws and the Cats were within one, then came the biggest play of the game.
With UK pressuring the Gators fullcourt, two Cats trapped Drejer in the corner. Struggling to find an open teammate, Drejer threw a crosscourt pass that was picked off cleanly by Hawkins, who went over Lee for a lay-in to give UK a 66-65 lead with 1:14 left, its first edge since 15:24 remained.
"I was anticipating it and just reading the play, reading his eyes," Hawkins said of his steal. "He threw it right where I thought he would. You want to try and make them pass the ball cross-court in that situation because it's a tough pass to make."
Florida nearly answered right back, but Anthony Roberson's drive wouldn't fall, UK rebounded and ran the clock down to 23.1 seconds before Roberson fouled Hawkins. Although Hawkins was shooting 74 percent from the line this season, he had made just 2-of-7 to that point and made one of two to push the lead to a perilous two at 67-65.
Much like a year ago in Gainesville, Roberson tried to win the game with a three, but his fadeaway over Azubuike was long and Hawkins rebounded, then made one free throw for the final score.
"WE talked about when you play Kentucky, they have a great ability to impose their will on you," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "They've been able to come away with some close wins (against UF). That's a tribute to Tubby and his kids."
In a season when fingernails have been chewed to the limit, UK pulled out another one, this time when it looked bleak.
"I wouldn't say we were desperate," Hayes said. "We just dug a big hole to get out of, but we fought back and didn't give up."
Kelenna Azubuike (#24) shoots
Chuck Hayes defends against David Lee