This time, nothing could keep Kentucky out of the Final Four.
Not Florida State’s press-breaking passes or the Wildcats’ first-half lapses. Not sub-par scoring from All-American Jamal Mashburn (12 points) or strong play from the Seminoles’ Rodney Dobard (16 points).
This time, there was no miracle shot to haunt the Wildcats.
A year after a heartbreaking overtime loss to Duke that came on Christian Laettner’s last-second shot in the East Regional final, Kentucky left no doubt about the outcome Saturday at the Charlotte Coliseum.
The top-seeded Wildcats (30-3) won their fourth consecutive NCAA tournament game by more than 20 points, beating third-seeded Florida State, 106-81, in the Southeast Regional final before 22,876.
This victory was unlike the others. Unheralded freshman Jared Prickett dominated Florida State’s front-line defense by scoring uncontested layup after layup en route to 22 points and 11 rebounds.
Prickett, the son of a coal miner, watched last season’s East Regional final--a 104-103 Duke victory--at a friend’s house in Fairmont, W.Va. He couldn’t imagine starring in such a contest, although he was West Virginia’s player of the year.
As Prickett rode the bus to the Coliseum on Saturday, he did not know he would start, much less surface in the national spotlight. He said he realized he was starting when he read the chalkboard 20 minutes before tipoff.
“I was trying to decide who to start, Jared or (Jeff) Brassow,” Kentucky Coach Rick Pitino said. “I guess I made the right choice.”
With Mashburn, a 6-foot-8 junior forward who is headed to the NBA, being closely covered by Dobard, the 6-9 Prickett was left open. He was guarded by the Seminoles’ 6-5 Bob Sura, who scored 17 points but was overmatched on defense.
Prickett scored on six layups, two three-pointers and four free throws. But it was his play around the basket that frustrated Florida State.
“I’ve never seen a player have such a knack for finding the basketball,” said Travis Ford, Kentucky’s point guard, who scored 19 points. “If he ever develops a jump shot, he will definitely be a lottery pick.”
Prickett, 19, is not thinking that far ahead. But he was enjoying the adulation that comes with such clutch performances. Prickett came to Kentucky as the least known of a strong freshman class that included Tony Delk and Rodrick Rhodes. But after summer pickup games, Mashburn and Ford told Pitino to watch Prickett.
“They said, ‘Coach, you won’t believe this guy, how hard he works,’ ” Pitino said.
Prickett believed he could average about 10 points a game at Kentucky. After playing against Mashburn and former Kentucky star Rex Chapman over the summer, he adjusted his goals. Prickett went into Saturday’s game averaging 4.9 points and 4.3 rebounds a game.
“I was just like any freshman coming in, thinking I could do it all,” Prickett said.
At least for one game, he did.
“It came at the perfect time,” Prickett said.
Coach Pat Kennedy devised a strategy to throw the Wildcats off balance. Kentucky has a penchant for taking over the game in the first 10 minutes, but could not shake Florida State until the last 3 1/2 minutes of the first half.
Every time it appeared the Wildcats were about to make a run, the Seminoles rallied behind the clever passing of Charlie Ward, Florida State’s starting quarterback and point guard. Time after time, Ward threw long passes over Kentucky’s defense for easy baskets.
Kennedy said the coaching staff watched film of Kentucky until 5 a.m. Friday to try to figure out a way to stop the intense pressure defense that destroyed Wake Forest on Thursday night.
The Seminoles were so well prepared from one day’s practice they did not panic when trailing, 27-17, after Dale Brown made a three-point shot with 11:15 left in the half. Instead, Florida State used an 11-0 run to grab its first lead, 28-27.
Florida State answered every Kentucky run until, with 3:16 left in the half, it was a one-point game. Then Kentucky’s reserves took control. Guard Junior Braddy made a three-pointer; Gimel Martinez made two free throws; Rhodes made a three-pointer and suddenly the lead was 52-43.
“We just made some poor choices at the end of the half,” Kennedy said.
Florida State’s fortunes did not improve in the second half. Kentucky attacked the ball and pulled away. Using a 10-4 run over the first 3:15, the Wildcats built the lead to 64-50.
Although Florida State tried to counter, its season was quickly ending.
“We weathered the storm in the first half, but we couldn’t keep it up,” said Seminole guard Sam Cassell, who had 16 points.
Mashburn scored only 12 points on five-of-13 shooting. But he also had nine rebounds and seven assists.