LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -The skinny, mild-mannered kid is gone.
Oh, Perry Stevenson is still skinny. Two years of pounding burgers and pumping iron in an attempt to add bulk haven't really done the trick.
Yet there Stevenson was on Sunday, scoring on emphatic dunks, grabbing rebounds and swatting five shots in Kentucky's 75-70 win over Florida to help Kentucky (18-11) burnish its credentials for the NCAA tournament.
This is not the same shy, tentative kid who used to treat the basketball like a hot potato last season. If anything, the ball seems to gravitate toward the lanky forward these days.
With the Wildcats up three in the final seconds against the Gators, Kentucky suddenly forgot how to beat the press. Two timeouts and two fortunate bounces after the ball caromed off a Florida player and out of bounds still hadn't brought the ball to midcourt.
Kentucky had just missed three of its last four free throws, and another anxious finish seemed at hand. Stevenson, however, had another idea.
``He kept telling me 'Coach, get me the ball and I'll make them,''' coach Billy Gillispie said. ``It's another step in Perry's development. He wanted that ball at the end because he was going to make the free throws.''
Two swishes later the Wildcats beat the Gators for the first time in three years. It was as good a signpost as any for the end of Stevenson's journey from project to impact player.
``I guess it's just wanting to win, just wanting to win for yourself and not necessarily to please everyone,'' Stevenson said. ``It's coming in with a blue-collar, hard-working attitude and it pays off for you.''
Stevenson's inspired play has helped the Wildcats overcome the loss of do-everything freshman forward Patrick Patterson, out for the year with a stress fracture in his left ankle. Stevenson's long arms have made getting to the basket difficult for opponents - his 44 blocks lead the team and are seventh in the SEC - and his increased confidence in the lane has made him a threat to score when he gets the ball.
Florida coach Billy Donovan couldn't help but notice.
``He was terrific, he was energized and he made great plays, but I'm not sure how much resistance we provided,'' Donovan said.
Stevenson's listed weight of 192 pounds is stretched tautly over his 6-foot-9 frame, and despite giving away an inch and 50 pounds to Florida center Marreese Speights, he attacked the basket consistently. Stevenson dunked three times and even showed off a nifty finger roll after slipping under Speights' outstretched arm.
Stevenson developed his tenacity over the summer, shedding his timid nature during loose ball scrambles.
It's made for some comical scenes on the floor. A typical tie-up with Stevenson goes something like this: He gets his long arms on the ball then plays tug-of-war with an opponent. The referee's whistle blows, but Stevenson holds onto the ball with the ferocity of a 3-year-old clutching his favorite toy.
``I am tougher now than when I first came to Kentucky,'' Stevenson said. ``I have matured a lot. You get a lot tougher going through practices and getting older. I thought I was tough last year, but adding another year, I know I continue to get tougher.''
The Wildcats will need that toughness during this week's SEC tournament. Kentucky will play either Georgia or Ole Miss on Friday in the quarterfinals. Kentucky, as usual this season, will be significantly smaller than either opponent.
Stevenson's job is to make sure it doesn't matter.
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