Vaught's Views: UK won't soon forget this loss

March 22, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

COLUMBUS, Ohio - This will not be a game that the Kentucky Wildcats forget any time soon.

"When you lose a game like this, you always think of things you didn't do. The loss won't go away. You don't forget these," Kentucky's Chuck Hayes said.

That's because the Wildcats came into the NCAA Tournament as the overall No. 1 seed and were confident they could win the national title they missed out on last year. Instead, Alabama-Birmingham took the Cats out of their normal style of play and got a game-winning shot from Mo Finley with 12.2 seconds left to stun UK 76-75 Sunday night.

Rather than going to St. Louis for the NCAA regional semifinals, Kentucky headed home thinking about what might have been.

Seven other times this season Kentucky had been involved in a game decided by five points or less. The Cats had won all seven and felt their senior-laden lineup could withstand any tournament pressure.


Kentucky had a season-best 10-game win streak going into the game and seemed to have peaked at just the right time.

No way the Cats could have been looking ahead, either. They had got a mild scare from unknown Florida A&M Friday when they gave up 52 points in the first half before winning 96-76. If that wasn't enough, five teams (Stanford, Gonzaga, Maryland, North Carolina State and Mississippi State) seeded fourth or higher going into the NCAA had already lost in the second round before the Cats took the court.

So what went wrong?

"Turnovers killed us," Hayes said. "We got away from fundamentals, too."

"We had the opportunity to make plays and we just didn't," senior point guard Cliff Hawkins said. "We had too many turnovers down the stretch."

Four crucial turnovers came after UK had rallied from a 13-point deficit in the first half to take a 69-63 lead. The Cats had to think then that underdog UAB would crumble - and it might have without some help from Kentucky.

First, Kelenna Azubuike got careless after getting a defensive rebound and threw the ball away leading to a UAB layup. Second, Kentucky couldn't inbounds the ball within five seconds even after taking a timeout to set up a play. Third, Erik Daniels had the ball knocked away after a defensive rebound leading to another easy UAB score. Fourth, Azubuike charged on a 2-on-1 fast break.

Those miscues enabled the Blazers to take a 72-71 lead with a 9-2 scoring run and put UAB in position to win at the end when Gerald Fitch missed an open 3-point shot and Hayes a desperation tip just before time expired to end UK's season well short of the Final Four.

"Everything went wrong that could go wrong," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "Those were critical turnovers. They just broke our back. They just crushed us."

This loss was much more disappointing than last year's defeat to Marquette in the NCAA Tournament. In that game, not only did Marquette play sensational basketball, but UK's leading scorer, Keith Bogans, was playing on a bad ankle.

This time UAB played well, but not great. The Blazers struggled to make shots at the end of each half and finished the game shooting 44.8 percent. UAB also had 12 turnovers, which was five fewer than UK.

No, UAB won because it maintained its poise at key times. From the outset the Cats looked more like a team playing not to lose than a team playing to win. Even though the Cats denied it, they seemed tentative and turned in a lackluster overall effort. Maybe it was UAB's superior quickness. Maybe it was tournament pressure. Or maybe it was just that this team has managed to hide its deficiencies so well all season and always found a way to win the close games.

"We just didn't seem to have any energy," Smith said. "We had defensive breakdowns. We just didn't play our normal defense and when we do that, we've got real problems."

Kentucky overcame a lack of size and depth all season. But in the two games here, the Cats didn't get the same play from Hawkins that they had in recent weeks. He was shaky with his decision-making and poise.

He hurt his back Friday and Smith said that hampered him Sunday even though Hawkins denied it. He had nine points on 3-for-10 shooting, only two assists and four turnovers. Those are not the numbers that win for Kentucky.

Still, rather than direct blame at what Kentucky didn't do, Smith acknowledged that his team achieved a lot by winning the Southeastern Conference Tournament and compiling a 27-5 finish.

"We overcame a lot in some areas this year," Smith said. "I think this team did overachieve in ways, but certainly we felt like we could have been better and that we should have played better and we should be moving on. It just wasn't our day today."

It's just that why it wasn't is something the Cats may never be able to figure out.

"I don't know if you call it shock, disbelief or what," said Azubuike, who had all 12 of his points in the second half. "I still don't believe we lost. I may never believe it. It's tough, or maybe impossible, to put into words what happened because we just don't know."

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