Rondo, 'Cats scratch Gators (again)

Originally Published: February 8, 2005
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Rupp Arena was near the boiling point Tuesday night when the alpha male point guards for Kentucky and Florida wound up eyeball-to-eyeball and jaw-to-jaw.

The Wildcats' Rajon Rondo had just fouled the Gators' Anthony Roberson, and the SEC's leading scorer in conference play took offense. Roberson barked at Rondo. The Kentucky freshman barked right back, stepping forward directly into the Florida junior's personal space. Official Karl Hess had to separate the two.

That lack of intimidation in the literal face of an upperclassman begins to illustrate why Rondo might be the most fearless freshman in the land. What happened next finishes the illustration.

Instead of being cowed by a confrontation with one of the best players in the league, Rondo got mad. Then got even. With the Cats clinging to a 53-52 lead, the 6-foot-1 Louisville product flashed out to snare a Florida pass with his abnormally large hands, roared 75 feet the other way and rattled the rim with a powerful dunk.

"That," said Kentucky senior Chuck Hayes, "was just Rondo being Rondo."

Rondo being Rondo is a major element of Kentucky being a national contender. He creates havoc on defense with his long arms and ability to hawk the ball. He creates havoc on offense with his ability to get into the lane on anybody. He's unafraid to stick his nose into the lane and snatch rebounds.

And his absolute assuredness running one of the most high-profile shows in Hoopsworld separates him from other teenage point guards. And more than a few older point guards as well.

"He's not like all freshmen," Hayes said. "He's a lot more mature, understands the game."

A freshman point guard has always been viewed skeptically in college basketball, but Rondo is now close to indispensable. He's averaging 11.6 points, four rebounds and nearly four assists in SEC play, shooting 56 percent from the field and easily leading the team in steals.

Tuesday night he finished with 14 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three steals in 30 hard-edged minutes. A 48 percent foul shooter, he made 8 of 10 free throws, including a pair when the Gators purposefully fouled him with 75 seconds left. And Rondo held Roberson without a field goal in the second half for 16½ minutes, cherishing the challenge of playing the explosive, well-inked gunner.

"I like him all right," Roberson said, somewhat grudgingly. "He's pretty good."

"[Rondo] knows [Roberson] is one of the top players in the country," said Tubby Smith, who doesn't allow his freshmen to talk to the media. "I'm sure he was looking forward to measuring himself against the best in this league."

And in the end, taking the measure of Roberson. From the point of Rondo's steal and dunk, Kentucky controlled the game and went on to win, 69-66. Kentucky continues to control this former rivalry, now having won eight straight over the Gators. And Kentucky continues to control the Southeastern Conference, running its league winning streak to a remarkable 18 games dating back to Valentine's Day 2004.

The running theme in this series has been the Wildcats' manifestly superior toughness, and the Gators' continual shrinking from the fight. Tuesday night Florida played with more moxie in Rupp Arena than at any time since 2002, intent on shedding its rep as a soft team.

"We were fueled up," Roberson said. "We wanted to win this game."

Coming off a surprising rout of Alabama, this would have been a great double for Billy Donovan's team. But in the end Kentucky still possessed the stronger will.

"Are they tough enough to beat Kentucky?" Hayes said, repeating a question to him. "Well, tonight they weren't. But you have to give them credit. They definitely are an improved team from a physical standpoint.

"They came in here and gave us their best shot. But we didn't back down."

Florida's best shot resulted in a nine-point lead early in the second half, after shooting 54 percent in the first 20 minutes. But Kentucky spent the second half doing what it usually does to the Gators: taking the game inside and taking it over.

At halftime Florida had outscored the Cats 20-16 in the paint. At game's end Kentucky owned that stat 38-26. And a UK team that had outrebounded the Gators by an average of 9.2 boards in the previous seven meetings won that stat 34-27.

"In the second half they were a little less aggressive defensively inside," Smith said. "So we were able to get inside a little easier."

That, in a nutshell, is a reversion to form. Kentucky flexed. Florida flinched.

"We're the big bully," said Kentucky sub Ravi Moss, "and the big bully doesn't back down."

Now the question is whether anybody in the SEC can stand up to the big bully. Kentucky really only has one standout victory, a miraculous comeback to beat Louisville in December, so it's fair to wonder whether the Wildcats belong among the nation's elite. It's equally fair to wonder whether that will matter in a very mediocre league.

Kentucky still must play Alabama in Tuscaloosa, then closes the regular season with a rematch in Gainesville. Florida says it will be up to the challenge. You know the Wildcats will be, from the senior class down to its fearless freshman point guard.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com