Date story published: Monday, March 8, 1999
ATLANTA - Kentucky may lack an m.o., as Coach Tubby Smith lamented only a week ago.
But UK reminded the college basketball nation yesterday that it has an I.D.
"We're the Wildcats, Baby!" "We're the Wildcats, Baby!" "We're the Wildcats, Baby!"
Kentucky's players chanted those words in a bouncing, chest-bumping huddle before taking the court for the Southeastern Conference Tournament Arkansas' best shot and beating the Razorbacks 76-63.
we want to play: Clawing and scratching and battling. Like a cat that sneaks upon you. Right now, we're sneaking up on people that have forgotten about us."
After losing four of their final seven regular-season games, the Cats finished second in the Eastern Division and suffered the indignity of being considered merely another contender here. UK reasserted its preeminence this weekend in winning its third straight SEC Tournament championship (and seventh in the last eight years).
"We have the mentality that we own this conference," sophomore Ryan Hogan said after UK improved its record in this event this decade to 23-1. "We wanted to get back what is ours."
Next for Kentucky (25-8) is defending its national "Come tournament time, there's no team with the same mental toughness," Hogan said. "This time is Kentucky time."
The Cats will also take a 51-6 record in March this decade. And five of the six losses came against opponents that either reached the Final Four or won the national championship.
Arkansas (22-10) looked that good in the first five minutes. By making five of their first six three-point shots, the Hogs put Kentucky in catch-up mode immediately. Point guard Kareem Reid applied the capper, a trey that put Arkansas ahead 19-6 with 15:03 left.
"Arkansas was energized early," UK backup guard Saul Smith said. good."
Kentucky's ever-improving depth prevented a first-round "When I saw the first squad came out a little flat, I knew I had to be active and attack," said Hogan, whose two three-pointers were his most in a game since Jan. 26. "We had to attack with the second team. If we're going to win the (national) championship, the second team has to bring the score back tight."
Reid, who excelled in a 12-point, nine-assist, two-turnover performance, drove Arkansas to a 40-31 lead. In the Hogs' counterattack, he lobbed for two dunks and fed freshman Chris Jefferies for a layup that put UK behind by nine with 2:04 left in the half.
But with the seniors accounting for all the points, UK scored the half's final eight points to close the halftime score to 40-39.
"That was the momentum we needed," said Scott Padgett, who contributed a three-pointer to the fast finish. "And it just carried over to the second half."
Padgett's put-back 14 seconds into the second half gave UK its first lead, 41-40. The Cats went on to score the first eight points of the second half. The 16 straight points put UK ahead 47-40 with 18:20 left.
Never trailing in the first half, Arkansas never led in the second half after Padgett's put-back.
"We played as hard as we could and we just ran out of gas," Arkansas Coach Nolan Richardson said. The Hogs needed an overtime to beat Mississippi State in Saturday's semifinals. "We didn't give up. We just gave out. There is a difference. Their size and strength were just too much."
Led by backup center Jamaal Magloire (13 points), six of UK's final eight baskets came in the paint. Magloire's post-up basket gave the Cats their first double-digit lead, 57-47, with 12:51 left.
A Padgett three-pointer gave Kentucky its largest lead, 60-49. Arkansas got as close as 64-59, but two straight Magloire post-up baskets shut the door on the comeback. "He's like an anchor," Saul Smith said of Magloire's presence inside.
"They only can hit for so long till they'll start to miss," UK center Mike Bradley said of Arkansas' fast start. "We were able to ease through the game after that."
After making seven of its first eight shots, Arkansas hit only 16 of 58 (27.6 percent) the rest of the game.
Arkansas shot up UK's man-to-man defense. But the Hogs never solved a 1-2-2 zone with Heshimu Evans or Tayshaun Prince at the top of the key.
"We're a team that plays its best basketball in March," Saul Smith said. "I don't think our fans would want it any other way."