LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—Rajon Rondo has done everything for Kentucky this season—score, rebound, pass and play defense. On Tuesday night, he did something he had never done before: Hit a last-second, game-winning shot.
Never, Rondo says. Not in college, high school or any time before.
His turnaround jumper with a second left gave the 19th-ranked Wildcats a 59-57 victory over Central Florida, preventing the biggest upset in the Golden Knights’ 36-year history.
But the sophomore guard, who has been battling a cold for five days, shrugged off his late heroics.
“I don’t really look at it as that much of a big deal,” Rondo said. “I’m just glad we got the win.”
Rondo said coach Tubby Smith called a different play when the Wildcats (10-3) came out of their last timeout but changed course when he saw the defense.
Central Florida (6-6) tied the game with 25 seconds left on a 3-pointer by Mike O’Donnell, but Rondo, ever conscious of the clock, stopped his dribble, spun around and hit the winning shot. He finished with 13 points.
“It was a big, big shot and a clutch play,” Smith said.
Golden Knights coach Kirk Speraw said he wasn’t surprised Rondo took the shot, but his players just couldn’t defend it.
“We knew he was going to have the ball in his hands,” Speraw said. “If I was Coach Smith, I would have done the same thing.”
Only once has Central Florida beaten a ranked opponent—Dec. 12, 2002, over No. 25 College of Charleston in Orlando.
If Rondo was the savior during Kentucky’s second-half dry spell, Ramel Bradley did the same in the first half. Bradley had 14 of his 16 points in the opening 20 minutes.
The knock on Bradley, a sophomore guard from New York, had always been his shot selection. Coming into the game, Bradley had made only four of his previous 18 3-point attempts, but he improved that average dramatically.
He was 3-of-4 from beyond the arc in the first half and was fouled attempting another, making all three free throws.
“Today I was just feeling it,” Bradley said.
His timing couldn’t have been better.
Kentucky missed its first six shots and didn’t score from the field until a layup by Shegari Alleyne nearly 6 minutes in.
The team’s shooting woes prompted Smith to remove all five starters at the 3-minute mark and insert new players who didn’t immediately fare much better. The Golden Knights built an 11-point lead midway through the half.
Most of the subs were soon shuffled back out, but Smith kept Bradley in the lineup, most of the time for the struggling Patrick Sparks. The move paid immediate dividends.
Bradley, whose banked 3-pointer helped beat Ohio last Friday, needed only the net on his 3s against Central Florida.
Josh Peppers had 15 points for the Golden Knights, who topped Kentucky in both shooting percentage and rebounds.
Central Florida was facing Kentucky for the first time, but Rupp Arena holds a special place in the program’s history. It was there in 1994 that the Golden Knights made their NCAA tournament debut as the No. 16 seed, losing 98-67 in the first round to top-seeded Purdue.
Central Florida, which hasn’t won any of its three road games this season, dropped to 0-24 all-time against the Southeastern Conference.