Date story published: Monday, March 12, 2001
NASHVILLE -- Going into the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Kentucky fretted about its ability to defend an offense that featured threats in the low post and at the three-point line.
With the possible exception of finding space for a 23rd SEC Tournament championship trophy, the Cats left worry-free.
In winning yesterday's championship game 77-55, Kentucky's defense dominated an Ole Miss team that featured an all-league center and school-record proficiency from the three-point line.
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"I don't know what they shot," UK reserve guard J.P. Blevins said, "but it had to be low."'
The Rebels shot a season-low 29 percent. "That speaks for itself," Blevins said. "Excellent defensive effort."
UK (22-9) wondered about its defense after Florida's inside-outside attack whipsawed the Cats in the regular-season finale. "(Teddy) Dupay and (Brett) Nelson had a three-ball fest," point guard Saul Smith said.
Dupay and Nelson led the way as Florida made 11 of 17 three-point shots in beating UK 94-86. Center Udonis Haslem punished the Cats inside.
Ole Miss had the weapons to test UK's defense. Bullish Rahim Lockhart was an all-league center. The Rebels had already set a school record with 206 three-pointers this season.
So what happened? Kentucky limited Lockhart to two baskets in the game's first 29 minutes. When he got his second, it reduced UK's lead to 20 with 10:33 left. He finished with seven points, one shy of a season low.
As for the three-pointers, Ole Miss did not make its first trey until Aaron Harper hit with 15:42 left in the second half. That shot reduced the UK lead to 48-22. More telling, it was the Rebels' first basket in more than 10 minutes. During that span, Kentucky broke the game open with a 28-3 run.
"They beat us to the punch," Ole Miss Coach Rod Barnes said. "They were more aggressive. They took it to us."
Smith linked the suffocating defense to the Florida game.
"We learned some things we need to do better," the UK point guard said. "Such as taking the three-ball, the three-point shot away."
Kentucky wasted no time setting a defensive tone.
Ole Miss went to its rock, Lockhart, early. But he got only one basket in the first 12 minutes.
"Lockhart, we kind of took the wind out of him," said Smith, who noted how Lockhart's 12 points and nine rebounds sparked the Rebels' 66-55 regular-season victory over UK. "He was the key in getting them going. We had to shut him down."
"They pushed him off the block," Barnes said admiringly. "And we didn't have enough patience to reverse the basketball and attack them."
"I guess I was trying to make plays so hard, I was rushing," Lockhart said.
Ole Miss shot poorly throughout the first half. The Rebels missed their first four shots and 12 of their first 14.
The Rebels' only players averaging double-digit points -- Lockhart and freshman forward Justin Reed -- provided momentary relief. Each hit a basket to bring Ole Miss within 20-16 at the 6:20 mark. But Lockhart's basket was only his second of the half. And Reed's -- a purposeful drive to the rim -- marked his only first-half points.
Ole Miss did not get another basket the rest of the half, missing its last 10 shots and committing three turnovers.
Asked if UK disrupted the teamwork that fueled Ole Miss's inspiring rise to the SEC Western Division championship, Saul Smith said, "Definitely. You want to make teams do things they're not accustomed to doing. They were accustomed to feeding the ball to Lockhart and then getting a lot of action down low. We took that away immediately."
Ole Miss (25-7) never established its rhythm.
Trailing 36-19 at halftime, the Rebels did not score for more than four minutes into the second half.
Offensively, UK used a quick-attacking, fast-break approach against the normally tenacious Ole Miss man-to-man defense. More than half of UK's first-half baskets (eight of 14) came off fast-break or early-offense opportunities.
In the regular-season game, Kentucky had shot a season-low 38.5 percent. But the fast-breaking attack helped the Cats shoot 50.8 percent in the rematch.
"Fifteen transition points in the first half," Barnes said of UK's productive fast break. "Nobody does that to us."
Tayshaun Prince, who was named the event's Most Valuable Player, led the attack. His six three-point baskets tied an SEC Tournament finals record. He finished with 26 points.
UK needed Prince, also voted the regular-season Player of the Year in the SEC, to come up big.
Ole Miss needed Lockhart. But the Cats' defense took him out of the game.
"Probably as good a run as I've seen in a while," Saul Smith said of UK's victory. "I've seen other things like how we shot every light bulb out at South Carolina.
"It all started with the defensive end."