Sunday, February 8, 2004

Same script, same result prepare UK for postseason

No.9 Kentucky 65, No.25 South Carolina 64

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LEXINGTON - For the South Carolina Gamecocks, this felt like a once-in-a-lifetime scenario: down a point with the ball in the final seconds at Rupp Arena. It was little wonder they nervously passed up a shot and then clanged one off the side of the backboard.

And so Kentucky yawned its way to another one-point win.

UK's Chuck Hayes has the ball knocked from his hands as he goes for a basket.
(Gary Landers photo)
If there is one complaint that won't be leveled at these Wildcats, it's that they'll be unprepared for the pressures of the postseason. Given the abrupt end to last season - top-ranked UK wasn't conditioned to play from behind and without its leading scorer - one could argue this team is building considerable confidence to get ready for similar scenarios.

"It was nothing for us," UK senior Erik Daniels said of the tense finish to its 65-64 victory Saturday. "We know what it takes to win in those situations."

Last season, UK embarked on a scorched-earth tour that lasted 26 games, with essentially only one game - a two-point triumph at Florida - before the NCAA regionals. Yet leading scorer Keith Bogans sprained an ankle there, and the Wildcats looked lost when facing a rare deficit against Marquette.

This season has been artless and anxious. Yet UK is 7-0 in games decided by five points or fewer, and five of its last eight victories have come by such slim margins. Saturday it beat the nation's No. 25 team despite missing leading scorer Gerald Fitch, who sat out with a sprained finger.

Meanwhile, the ninth-ranked Wildcats (16-3, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) have surged into sole possession of the SEC East lead. With a No. 3 RPI as of Saturday, they are positioning themselves for a run at another No. 1 seed.

And remember, the last UK team called Cardiac Cats won the 1998 national championship.

"We have older, experienced players," coach Tubby Smith said. "Those guys have been through the wars in this league. They're not going to panic."

Offense comes and goes. UK shot 41.4 percent Saturday.

Smith's teams, though, emphasize defense and rebounding, and those stats sing. UK held the Gamecocks (19-4, 6-3) to 46.4 percent - no Wildcat opponent has yet shot 50 percent - and outrebounded South Carolina 41-26.

South Carolina's final six possessions netted just one field goal and two free throws - one of which was set up by a foul on the other end. Two of its 10 turnovers came in that stretch.

"Defense, for us, wins games," UK guard Cliff Hawkins said.

UK had surged ahead on two big baskets, a Kelenna Azubuike 3-pointer and an Antwain Barbour 3-point play. It was 65-63 with 1:09 left.

The Gamecocks' Carlos Powell made one of two foul shots with 57 seconds left. UK lost the ball. Then two defensive plays rescued it. With seven seconds left, Gamecocks guard Josh Gonner faked Barbour at the 3-point line. But Chuck Hayes rushed at him and made him abort a shot and call time out.

South Carolina got the ball in to Kerbrell Brown, who drove on Daniels and popped up for a 12-foot jumper. But the shot banged off the side of the backboard into Hawkins' hands.

UK got strong foul shooting (14-of-17) and reliable post play: Daniels totaled 17 points and nine rebounds; Hayes had 15 points and 11 rebounds.

"You know the games in the (NCAA) Tournament are going to be close," Daniels said. "So having this experience is going to help us in the long run."

Close-call Cats

Kentucky is now 7-0 in games decided by five or fewer points:

Dec. 6UCLA52-50
Dec. 13Michigan State79-74
Jan. 3North Carolina*61-56
Jan. 13Mississippi State67-66
Jan. 20Tennessee69-68 (OT)
Feb. 3Florida68-65
SaturdaySouth Carolina*65-64
*-In Rupp Arena.



Team rebounds - 0.

Team rebounds - 1.

South Carolina2737-64
3-pointers - SC 6-17 (Powell 0-1, Brown 0-2, Boynton 4-10, Gonner 1-3, Kelley 1-1), UK 3-16 (Azubuike 1-5, Hayes 1-1, Hawkins 0-2, Barbour 1-6, Carrier 0-1, Perry 0-1). Officials - Boudreaux, Lindsay, Smith. Attendance - N/A.

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