Sunday, March 7, 2004
Florida adds fuel to UK players
Wildcats have won seven of last eight against Gators
By Murray Evans
The Associated Press
LEXINGTON - Kentucky forward Chuck Hayes has a good reason why he routinely watches the game film of last season's Florida game in Lexington - the memories are positive.
"For some reason we just get up a little bit more for Florida," Hayes said. "I don't know why, but we do."
Florida had moved to No. 1 the day before the game, but as a Rupp Arena-record crowd of 24,459 watched, Kentucky held Florida to six first-half baskets, led 45-22 at halftime and won 70-55. The win, Kentucky's 11th of a 26-game streak that lasted until the NCAA Midwest Region final, was arguably the Wildcats' most dominating performance of the season.
Just don't ask Kentucky coach Tubby Smith or any of his players too much about that game, or about how they've managed to win five in a row and seven of the last eight over Florida, which will return to Rupp Arena on Sunday for the regular-season finale for both teams.
"We've played well against them and they probably feel they haven't played to their level of ability," Smith said. "We have shot the ball well against them and that is one plus for us. It is always billed as a big game and our guys seem to rise to that challenge."
Senior guard Gerald Fitch similarly doesn't want to try to explain Kentucky's recent dominance in the series, which included a 68-65 win at Florida on Feb. 3, during which Kentucky closed with an 11-0 run.
"I hope we can keep having their number, I know that," Fitch said. "There's just something different about Florida. We're always ready."
No. 9 Kentucky (22-4, 12-3 Southeastern Conference) has won five straight games - its second-longest streak of the season - and is the SEC East division champion. The Wildcats cannot win the overall SEC title, which SEC West champion Mississippi State clinched with an overtime win over Alabama on Saturday.
Florida, which was ranked No. 1 for a week in December, since has fallen out of the rankings. The Gators (18-8, 9-6) secured second place in the East division and a first-round bye in the SEC tournament in Atlanta after Vanderbilt lost to Georgia 71-61 Saturday night.
"With no bye, we have to turn around and leave on Tuesday to be in Atlanta for a mandatory shootaround," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "If we get the bye, then you are looking at a situation in which we would not leave until Thursday, and then it becomes much more like a regular road trip for us. So in terms of getting a bye, it affects our travel and practice schedule more than anything."
Like Smith, Donovan doesn't care to focus on Kentucky's current winning streak in the series.
"I don't really worry about that with our basketball team because I think our team has changed so much," Donovan said. "We've got four new guys here. Every time you play someone, regardless of the past, it's going to be different. I don't think the game on Sunday has anything to do with what has happened in the past. It's an opportunity to play Kentucky, a top five, top 10, team all season and a team that a lot of people picked to win the league."
Since its first game against Kentucky, Florida has lost sophomore forward Christian Drejer, who suddenly quit the team last month and signed a contract with a professional team in Spain.
Smith said Kentucky will start its five seniors, including seldom-used walk-on Matt Heissenbuttel, on Sunday.
No. 9 UK vs. Florida
Tipoff: Noon today, Rupp Arena (23,000), Lexington.
Records: UK 22-4 (12-3 Southeastern Conference), Florida 18-8 (9-6).
TV: Ch. 12, 7.
Radio: WSAI-AM (1530).
Line: UK by 7 1/2.
Coach: Billy Donovan (167-81, eighth season; 202-101 overall).
Coach: Tubby Smith (186-51, seventh season; 310-113 overall).
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