Friday, March 23, 2001

Poignant ending for Smith & Son




By KEVIN CALLAHAN
The (Cherry Hill, N.J.) Courier-Post

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Saul Smith shouts after making one of his five 3-pointers.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
        PHILADELPHIA — Tubby Smith, the coach of Kentucky, said goodbye to his only senior Thursday night. He was his first recruit. He was also his point guard. He is his son.

        Saul Smith played his last collegiate game on the floor of the First Union Center. The 20,270 in attendance — the largest crowd to see a college basketball game in Pennsylvania history — and his father saw Smith bow out of the NCAA tournament to Southern California.

        There were no emotional hugs on the court between father and son after the 80-76 loss. They shook hands with the Trojans and then slowly walked up the tunnel beneath the Kentucky fans and into their locker room.

        There Saul cried.

        “I was definitely trying to hold it in until I got in private,” Saul said.

        Saul Smith has learned to hold a lot of his emotions in check the last four years in Lexington, where he leaves ninth in Kentucky history in assists.

        The 6-foot-2, 175-pounder was criticized and chastised by fans for four years.

        He heard the chants “daddy's girl” at opposing Southeast Conference arenas. But the insults hit a low Jan. 27 when he was booed at Rupp Arena, where he finished with a 48-5 career record, even though he scored a career-high 18 points against Vanderbilt.

        “I'm his biggest fan,” Tubby said about his son. “I probably couldn't do what he has been able to endure and tolerate. Could you imagine Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer trying to make a putt with people distracting them?

        “He is a tough, bright young man. I'm his biggest admirer.”

        Saul didn't just have to endure the harsh criticism on himself. He heard the catcalls for his father, who won a national championship his first year in 1997-98 and has averaged 27.5 wins in his four seasons at Kentucky.

        But in the Blue and White's eyes, Tubby Smith is no Rick Pitino, whom he replaced four years ago. Pitino had won a national title with the Wildcats in 1996 and brought Kentucky to the Final Four in 1993 and 1997.

        Pitino was hired Wednesday to resurrect state rival Louisville's program like he did at Kentucky, which was on sanctions from the NCAA when he arrived in 1989.

        “He's handled it well,” Saul said about his father. “He's handled it the way he has always handled criticism.”

        Smith hit a three-pointer to cut USC's lead to 48-42 with 15:46 left. Another three-pointer by Smith pulled Kentucky to 57-54 with 9:42 to play. After a USC basket, Smith hit another three-pointer at the top of the key to make it 59-57.

        Kentucky, however, could never take the lead and Saul Smith finished with 17 points and four assists.

        “I look at the last four years and it has been a great opportunity to play for my father and it something I will remember the rest of my life,” said Saul, who averaged 6.5 points and 3.9 assists this season. “How many kids even have a father, let alone play for him? And, he is not only my father but the best coach in America.”

        Saul doesn't plan to follow his father's footsteps and go into coaching. He wants to go to law school.

       Complete tournament coverage at Cincinnati.com



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