Mark Story: Kentucky on right track for 35 minutes

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 15, 2012 

LOUISVILLE — So are you a glass half-full type?

Or do you take a glass half-empty view?

With 5:26 to go in Kentucky's NCAA Tournament opener, Anthony Davis banked in a layup. The Cats — having put on a dunking exhibition — led Western Kentucky University 80-50.

It was the kind of dominance one expects a No. 1 seed to show against a No. 16.

My plan was to write that, after the subpar trip through the SEC Tournament bracket last week, the Cats had their swagger back.

Then UK let a "shout-out performance" end with a whimper.

Kentucky (33-2) beat WKU 81-66 Thursday night in the NCAA South Regional round of 64 in the KFC Yum Center before a heavily partisan UK crowd that included Pat Riley.

For 35 minutes, the Cats dominated. But the plucky Toppers (16-19) — the comeback kings throughout their improbable run into the NCAA — ended the game on a 16-1 run.

Given that the Cats missed 14 straight shots down the stretch in losing a late lead and the SEC Tournament to Vanderbilt, another late-game letdown was worrisome.

"We've got to do a better job finishing off games," Kentucky senior forward Darius Miller said. "We kind of got lazy there at the end, and they took advantage of it."

You'd like to think the Cats were just bored, not showing signs of late-season fatigue.

"We definitely weren't tired," Miller said. "I don't think it had anything to do with that. We kind of lost focus, which we definitely can't do."

With the winner of Iowa State and Connecticut looming, how should people view UK's performance against Western?

Mr. Half Full would celebrate how well Kentucky played the first 35 minutes.

Mr. Half Empty would fret over the limp ending.

I'm a half-full kind of guy.

Kentucky got out on WKU early because two of its three Final Four veterans, sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, lit up the KFC Yum Center.

As UK built a 45-26 halftime lead, Jones and Lamb each hit six of eight shots from the floor. The 252-pound Jones overpowered the smaller Hilltoppers in the paint on the way to 15 first-half points (he finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds, and joined Kentucky's 1,000-point club).

Lamb stroked two three-point jumpers, but also drove the ball hard to the basket for layups en route to 14 first-half points (he finished with 16).

"They've been through this before," Miller said. "They know what it takes. They were trying to be aggressive from the beginning, and we were trying to feed them the ball."

As what passes for a Cats veteran, Jones said he feels a responsibility to step up under NCAA pressure and take heat off Kentucky's freshmen. "It's just trying to be aggressive," he said.

After being outscored in the paint by a combined 92-86 in three SEC tourney games, Kentucky reasserted itself near the rim against smaller Western. Of 16 first-half Kentucky baskets, 12 came in the lane. UK's first five second-half goals were all dunks or layups.

For UK's first in-state NCAA Tournament game in 28 years, Cats fans painted the home arena of their archrival blue. When the KFC Yum Center announcer gave the score from Rick Pitino and Louisville's first NCAA tourney win since 2009 (69-62 over Davidson), it drew (mild) boos in the Cards home roost.

Western gave a good account of itself. Ray Harper's work in taking over a dispirited WKU program and leading it on a Cinderella run into the NCAA tourney round of 64 points to better things to come.

In freshmen T.J. Price (21 points), Derrick Gordon (12 points, five rebounds) and George Fant (13 points), WKU has a nucleus that, with experience, can make an NCAA run that reaches past the round of 64.

As for Kentucky, the future is now.

After 35 minutes Thursday night, I'd have said UK's drive for NCAA title No. 8 was exactly where it needed to be.

Even Mr. Glass Half Full would have to say, however, that those last five minutes need some work.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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