Vaught's Views: No panic yet for Cat fans

March 23, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

Either the Big Blue Nation has learned to accept losing in the NCAA Tournament or Kentucky fans really did understand how many things had to go right for this year's Wildcats to win 27 games.

While UK fans were naturally disappointed with Kentucky's 76-75 loss to Alabama-Birmingham Sunday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the righteous indignation that has been present after other NCAA losses seemed to be missing Monday.

Coach Tubby Smith's final radio call-in show gave Big Blue fans a chance to question the coach Monday. Instead, it turned into a Kentucky lovefest without one fan second-guessing the coach or offering any critical analysis of Sunday's game.

Smith admitted UAB's unorthodox style did present some problems for his team. But he also noted the obvious - for the first time this season, UK didn't get a defensive stop it needed to win a game.


"We are accustomed to winning those close games," said Smith. "It was the first time we didn't get the stop with the lead in the last minute. There were a number of teams that had a chance to beat us or take the lead in the last minute, but we always got the stop. We did it over and over all year long. This time we just couldn't get the stop."

While UAB got the game-winning shot from Mo Finley with 12.2 seconds to play, Kentucky missed a chance to win the game when Gerald Fitch couldn't hit an open 3-pointer and then Chuck Hayes missed a desperation tip.

Smith again said he thought Fitch's shot was in. Then he did take one jab at the officiating.

"We had Chuck rolling to the basket and he got the tip at the end where he got shoved out of bounds and didn't get the call," Smith said.

He also criticized a charging call on Kelenna Azubuike late in the game when UK had a 2-on-1 fast break and chance to expand a two-point lead.

"You would think we would get the right call. The block-charge call on Kelenna was a bad call," Smith said.

Smith said if a block had been called, Azubuike's goal would have been good and he would have gone to the foul line with a chance to give UK a five-point lead. Since a charge was called, the goal was nullified and UAB hit a 3-point shot to take a one-point lead.

However, Smith offered no other excuses. He said his team did not bring its "A game" and was "lethargic" in both NCAA games. He noted that both Florida A&M and UAB had smaller, quicker guards that gave his team problems because the Cats had not faced any team with a similar lineup all year.

The coach hopes UK fans will support the team's five seniors when they embark on a barnstorming and autograph tour across the state. Of course, no one could blame fans if they are a bit skeptical after the way Keith Bogans, Marquis Estill and Jules Camara canceled several barnstorming games last year after plans were put in place for the tour.

"There should be a lot of fans wanting to see them," Smith said. "They have great stories to tell about what they had to overcome and what it has meant to them to be part of the Kentucky basketball program.

"They had a great year and career. This group won 105 games in four years and lost just three (Southeastern) conference games the last two years. I don't think anybody could have predicted that we would have won 27 games this year."

Smith said he knew his players were still hurting after Sunday's loss, but he encouraged them Monday to get out in the community, interact with others and be proud of what they did do this year.

"Losing is not the end of the world," Smith said. "As badly as I wanted to stay in bed and stay in the house today, I had to get out and face it."

Yet Smith could not totally hide his disappointment even if the Big Blue fans showed him nothing but love.

"We've got to get back to the Final Four," Smith said of the ending his team has not experienced since its 1998 championship season. "We had our guys believing and achieving. This could have been our year."

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