Friday, March 23, 2001

UK's Mr. Clutch became Mr. Invisible


Prince turned into pauper for USC game

By PAT FORDE
The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal

        PHILADELPHIA — Tayshaun Prince came into March like a lion. He left it Thursday night like a lamb.

        The University of Kentucky's Do Everything forward did very little in an 80-76 loss to Southern California in the NCAA East Region semifinals. He was the horse that brought the Wildcats here, dominating the Southeastern Conference Tournament and the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, but he broke down in the Sweet 16 against the Trojans.

        Prince scored just six points, 11 less than his season average and his lowest total since scoring three against Penn State on Nov. 25. He turned the ball over four times and missed six of eight shots. His perimeter stroke was nonexistent, and his post-up game disappeared against USC's active zone. His last field goal came with 8:11 left in the first half.

        There were two free throws with six minutes left in the game, and that was it in the final 32 minutes.

        While Kentucky relied on Keith Bogans, Jason Parker and gutsy Saul Smith to bring them back after a flatly-horrific first half, Prince never made an impact. It was a startling disappearance from a guy who had blossomed into Mr. Clutch, Mr. Take Charge, Mr. In Charge.

        This time, he was Mr. Invisible.

        If there is a silver lining for Kentucky, it might be that it was just the kind of performance that convinces Prince he needs a senior season before being ready for the pro game.

        The only thing more startling than the disappearance of Prince was the collective disappearance of the Cats in the first half. USC simply blitzed an unfocused and unaggressive Kentucky from the opening tip, leading by 21 at one point and 19 at halftime.

        The Cats looked completely flummoxed by everything the Trojans did, from trapping and zoning on defense to creating wide open shots on offense.

        Advantage to USC coach Henry Bibby.

        It was enough to make you think back across a momentous 24 hours in the commonwealth. In a statement brimming with resentment, Kentucky athletic director Larry Ivy went out of his way to label new Louisville coach Rick Pitino the No. 2 coach in the state.

        Maybe so. But Ol' No. 2 never presided over a Kentucky half that pitiful in NCAA play. For the first time all year, Kentucky trailed by 20 points in a game. And for just the third time since Kentucky came off probation in 1992, the Cats stalled before the final eight - but for the second year in a row.

        It wasn't hard to tell which team was more in tune with the magnitude of this game. I was sitting directly behind the bench, and this was a group of wet matches in the first half. Not a single player spoke up during that opening 20, not in encouragement or in anger. Like the players on the floor, they just sat there and took it.

        That changed after intermission, when the Cats were threatened with their season's extermination. But not even a blazing Kentucky rally to open the second half could make up for the damage done. This was too big a hill to climb.

        Especially with Kentucky's biggest advantage (its depth) neutralized. Coach Tubby Smith played his subs just 40 of the 200 minutes, only 17 more than USC's paper-thin bench.

        Make no mistake, sixth-seeded USC deserved to win this game.

        Kentucky, seeded second and perhaps already dreaming of Duke on Saturday, never led for a second.

        There's no need to dream of Duke today. Nor is there any need for Tayshaun Prince to dream of being a lottery pick come June.

       Complete tournament coverage at Cincinnati.com



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