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UK keeps No. 1 seed hopes alive

3/12/2004

ATLANTA (AP) -- Take a deep breath, Kentucky.

Georgia is out of the way.

The eighth-ranked Wildcats eliminated their nemesis from the
Southeastern Conference tournament, getting 23 points from Cliff
Hawkins and using a late run to put away Georgia 69-60 Friday.

"There's sense of relief beating these guys," Kelenna Azubuike
said.

No kidding. Kentucky (24-4) has its sights on a top seed in the
NCAA tournament, but that would have been out of the question if
the Wildcats couldn't figure out Georgia (16-13).

They finally did after losing twice to the Bulldogs during the
regular season. Georgia was in position to become just the second
team in 84 years to sweep three games from Kentucky in a season.

With five minutes left, it looked possible. Georgia stormed back
into the game with an 10-0 run and tied it at 52 on Rashad Wright's
3-pointer. But the Bulldogs never got over the hump, and Kentucky
put the game away with a 12-3 run that featured two key baskets by
Azubuike.

"They have a very tough team," he said. "They play defense
just like we do. They're pretty much a mirror-image of ourselves."

Gerald Fitch put Kentucky ahead to stay by making two free
throws with 3:17 remaining. After Wright missed, the Wildcats raced
the other way and got a layup from Erik Daniels to push the lead to
56-52.

A long 3 by Wright turned out to be Georgia's last hurrah.
Hawkins responded with a 3 of his own over Wright -- voted the top
defender in the league -- and Kentucky got a fortunate bounce after
Fitch missed a 3-pointer. The rebound went straight to Azubuike,
who laid it in, was fouled by Wright and finished off the
three-point play with a free throw.

Then came the knockout, once again delivered by Azubuike. The
sophomore saw an opening along the baseline and streaked to the
basket for a monstrous dunk with one minute to go, putting Kentucky
ahead 64-55.

"We were very serious-minded," Fitch said. "Once we found out
we were playing Georgia, we had our game face on."

The Bulldogs might still have won if not for atrocious
free-throw shooting. After making 71.5 percent during the regular
season -- fourth in the SEC -- they were only 6-of-16 against
Kentucky.

"Quite simply, if we make our free throws like we normally do,
we win the game walking away," Georgia coach Dennis Felton said.

Fitch scored 15 points and Azubuike added 11 for the Wildcats,
who advanced to meet South Carolina in Saturday's semifinals.

The loss likely prevented Georgia from a spot in the NCAA
tournament, though Felton got in some last-minute campaigning for
those who will pick the 65-team field.

"You would struggle to find 30 teams better than us," he said.
"We're very, very hopeful."

More than likely, however, the Bulldogs will be forced to settle
for the National Invitation Tournament in their follow-up to last
year's academic scandal, which cost coach Jim Harrick his job and
prompted the school to withdraw from both the SEC and NCAA
tournaments.

Despite having only seven healthy players on scholarship,
Georgia stunned Kentucky in both regular-season meetings, winning
65-57 at Rupp Arena and following up with a 74-68 upset in Athens.

Since 1920, Tennessee was the only team to sweep three games
from Kentucky in a season, pulling off the feat in 1979.
Conversely, Georgia had pulled off three wins over the same team
only once, against Mississippi State in 1984.

While the game was played just over an hour's drive from the
Georgia campus, the Big Blue Nation turned Atlanta into
"Cat-lanta." The Bulldogs had one section of red-clad fans --
everyone else in the Georgia Dome appeared to be wearing blue.

"We are used to that," Fitch said. "Everywhere we go, the
place is packed with Wildcat fans."

Still, the Bulldogs made a game of it after Hawkins hit one of
his four 3s, putting Kentucky up 49-38 with just under 12 minutes
left.

Wright, who led Georgia with 23 points, started the comeback
with a trey of his own. Overall, he was 5-of-8 from outside the
arc.

Wright drove the lane for another hoop, Chris Daniels spun in
the late for a basket and Levi Stukes swished his only 3 of the
game from the top of the key, completing the 10-point run.

The previous day, Stukes tied an SEC tournament record with
eight 3-pointers, accounting for nearly all of his career-high 25
points. He was only 1-of-6 against the Wildcats, who put Fitch in
the freshman's face and held him to three points.

"I didn't want to give him open looks," Fitch said,
"especially after the game he had."