Senior Day always emotional at Kentucky

March 07, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - No one has to tell Billy Donovan how difficult winning at Rupp Arena can be, especially on Kentucky's Senior Day.

"Rupp Arena is always a difficult place to play, and right now Kentucky is playing great basketball," said Donovan, the head coach at Florida.

Donovan's Gators face ninth-ranked UK today in the traditional Senior Day game where Kentucky fans will watch five players - Erik Dan-iels, Cliff Hawkins, Gerald Fitch, Antwain Barbour and Matt Heisenbuttel - play their final home game.

Kentucky is 79-4 in Senior Day games and has won 38 of its last 39, including every one in Smith's tenure.


"It's been great being here," Daniels said. "We have the best fans in the country. They support us, and it's been fun playing for them."

The traditional sendoff for the seniors is scheduled to start at 11:48 a.m. and Donovan, a former assistant on Rick Pitino's staff at Kentucky, knows what it will be like.

"When you talk about Kentucky, besides great talent, players and tradition, there is a great level of appreciation the fans have for players who stayed four years and contributed to that tradition," Donovan said. "Senior night at Kentucky is unlike any senior ceremony anywhere else across the country. It's certainly a great, great tradition."

It's one that often makes players cry. The consensus among the UK coaching staff and players is that the first to have tears this year will be Fitch.

"Gerald is a pretty emotional guy," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "I would say he would be the one (to cry). He's the most emotional of the seniors. But I think they will all be very sensitive to playing their final game at Rupp Arena."

"Eighty-five percent of the team thinks it will be Gerald that cries," junior Chuck Hayes said. "We took a survey. He's already told us he will cry and he's not ashamed of it."

That's why Smith said he would "probably" give Heisenbuttel, a walk-on player, his first start.

"He deserves it," said Hayes, who would take a seat on the bench along with Kelenna Azubuike if the five seniors start. "I have no problem with that. It's a special day."

Forty-one of Daniels' family members are coming to the game

Carmen Daniels, Erik Daniels' mother, likely will cry also. Forty-one family members are coming to today's game.

"A month ago I thanked coach Smith for all he had done for my son and for not giving up on him," Carmen Daniels said. "Erik was frustrated his sophomore year. We were, too. So was coach Smith. But coach Smith stuck with him and gave Erik a chance to mature."

Kentucky's senior class recorded its 100th win Wednesday when the Wildcats won at South Carolina. Kentucky is 100-28 over the last four years, and the team has won two Southeastern Conference championships and two SEC Tournament titles.

"They have been a part of an excellent four years of basketball," Smith said. "I think they can leave here knowing they've contributed a lot to the success of Kentucky basketball.

"We've been trying to emphasize to them that they need to limit their distractions and focus on the game. We know they have a lot of relatives coming, but most of them have had relatives come to most of our games."

The players insist once the pregame ceremony ends, they will be totally focused on beating Florida and continuing their pursuit of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

"We're not really trying to think about Senior Day as much as we are thinking about what we have to work on to get ready for the game," Hawkins said Friday. "We're just to go out there and not worry about any distractions."

"We just want to get the game over. It's just another game for us after the ceremony ends," Daniels said. "We're trying to win a national championship and this is just another step."

Smith thinks his players are mature enough to handle the hoopla of the Senior Day ceremony and extend their five-game winning streak.

"They know it is a big game for us. It is an important game to continue our momentum," Smith said. "Usually we are playing for something this time of year and that's a big help with the emotions.

"The guys understand when the ball is thrown up, they have to be ready to compete. We don't get too excited or too low. That is the same on Senior Day. It is a time for the fans and our players to show their appreciation for the opportunity they've had to be here.

"But after that, we still have a game to win and they should be trying to play their best because it is an honor to have the opportunity to play for Kentucky."

Team play: Smith says one reason he likes his team's postseason chances is because of its recent unselfish play and court awareness.

"I think this team has evolved, as most teams I've had the chance to work with, into a really unselfish team," Smith said. "The ultimate goal is to get them to play unselfishly. Guys are not out their searching for their shots.

"They are encouraging one another and doing all the little things to help each other know they appreciate what is happening on the court. That is an important factor at this time of year."

Hayes said everyone has the message about what it takes to be a national title contender.

"Everyone is holding each other accountable," Hayes said. "If somebody does something wrong, the coaching staff pretty much lets the players take care of it. It's getting close to tournament time, so the players definitely need each other and we understand that."

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