Sunday, December 14, 2003

Fantastic Four carry Wildcats

Record 78,129 watch: No. 1 on horizon for Kentucky

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

DETROIT - Overcoming a world-record crowd of 78,129 Saturday that largely backed Michigan State, Kentucky showed it has no need for the advantage of the so-called "sixth man."

With an elevated court above the 50-yard line at Ford Field, a basketball world-record crowd of more than 75,000 watches the Michigan State-Kentucky basketball game at Ford Field in Detroit Saturday.
(AP photo)
For that matter, its fifth man seems somewhat extraneous, too.

As their 79-74 victory in Ford Field showed, the Wildcats will go as far this season as their Fantastic Four can take them.

Seniors Gerald Fitch, Cliff Hawkins and Erik Daniels, and junior Chuck Hayes combined for 71 points Saturday, and they rank as perhaps the nation's most experienced and reliable foursome.

"That's why we have to have them in the game," UK coach Tubby Smith said.

"I have the utmost confidence in (those four). They're veterans. They're tested. They've been hardened by the wars ... the tough schedule we play. They're not intimidated by opponents or by atmosphere."

This was a formidable foe, one with four McDonald's All-Americans - to none for UK - and a No. 2 preseason ranking. The atmosphere of the event, dubbed the "BasketBowl," could have shaken a lesser team.

But this is Kentucky.

"These are the games," senior Antwain Barbour said, "that we live for."

Kentucky guard Gerald Fitch yowls during the closing seconds of the game against Michigan State.
(AP photo)
The veterans have been through plenty of them, and that experience has fueled a 5-0 start - the best since UK went 11-0 to begin the 1992-93 season. The Wildcats have won 25 consecutive regular-season games.

Ranked No. 8 by the Associated Press and No. 2 by the coaches, they are poised to become No. 1 today in the new ESPN/USA Today coaches poll.

Coming off a 27 percent shooting effort against UCLA, their worst in 20 seasons, UK hit 60.4 percent Saturday.

It never trailed, continually answering charges by the 21st-ranked Spartans (3-4) with its own big shots or defensive stops.

"We've got experience," Hayes said. "We've got a lot of guys that know what it takes, that do what they need to do in order to win."

Hayes had arguably the finest game of his career, totaling 17 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals.

Fitch, who was 1-of-11 against UCLA, was 7-of-11 for 25 points Saturday.

"He took better shots," Smith said. "When he gets good looks and is patient, he's one of the best (shooters) in the country."

Daniels, saddled with foul trouble and an upset stomach, added 16 points.

MSU closed within a point with eight minutes left.

In the final minute, it twice closed within two. The first time, the 6-foot-6 Hayes backed down 6-11 Paul Davis and spun for a left-handed 5-footer. The second time, Fitch made both ends of a one-and-one.

"It's all about the will to win," Hawkins said.

That phrase was one Smith had cited to his team in the locker room. The veterans executed it. Fitch, Hawkins and Hayes all played 38 or more minutes.

"At the end of the game, we got tired," Hawkins said. "But at that point, it's mind over matter. You fight through it."

Over the last two games, the bench has a combined total of four baskets, two assists and four turnovers.

The only reserve to play regularly has been Barbour, who saw 26 minutes Saturday with Kelenna Azubuike in foul trouble. Even Smith admits he has a hard time resting his leaders when they're so reliable.

"(The veterans) know how to raise their intensity level," he said. "... Our guys showed a lot of heart, a lot of courage. That's the mentality of this team."

Team rebounds - 2.

Team rebounds - 1.

Michigan St.4331-74
3-pointers - UK 5-11 (Hawkins 1-3, Fitch 4-6, Daniels 0-1, Barbour 0-1), MSU 7-19 (Brown 2-4, Hill 4-8, Anderson 0-2, Torbert 0-1, Ager 1-3, Bograkos 0-1). Technicals - None.

Attendance - 78, 129.

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