Date story published: Thursday, March 1, 2001
Freshman center Jason Parker mimicked Kentucky's rise this season from stumbling start to fast finish last night.
Like the Cats' 0-2 start in the Coaches vs. Cancer Tournament, Parker stumbled out of the gate in an ill-advised player-against-coach competition. His snappish retort to UK Coach Tubby Smith's exhortation got Parker benched barely two minutes into the game.
"When I came to the sideline, he just gave me a glare," Parker said. "He gave me that stare. I knew I did something wrong."
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But as UK rose like a phoenix from the ashes of November, Parker came on strong against undersized Auburn. His career-high 19 points powered Kentucky to a 90-78 victory.
The victory clinched no worse than a share of the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship. That crown, the 41st in UK basketball history, capped the Cats' rise from a ragged 3-5 start to the season.
"At the beginning, I knew that might have seemed like an unattainable goal," Smith said. "But that was our goal from the beginning. That's our goal every year."
UK, 19-8 overall and 12-3 in the league, will try to win the championship outright Sunday at second-place Florida. The Gators stayed a game back by winning at Vanderbilt last night.
"We shared last year," guard Keith Bogans. said. "We don't want to share this year."
Parker's strong game followed two straight games in which he looked like a freshman struggling to find a comfort level. Against LSU last week, he repeated his pattern of letting early foul trouble disrupt his rhythm. After that, Smith said Parker looked like he'd been lobotomized by early fouls.
Parker's defense on the post was "just awful" at Arkansas Sunday, the coach said.
At lunch Monday, Bogans made sure to show Parker those comments from Smith.
"You played awful," Bogans said he told Parker. "He told me, 'It won't happen on Wednesday.' "
Parker, a proud young man with the pedigree of a Parade high school All-American, acknowledged the sting of Smith's blunt assessment.
"I read the comments Coach Smith made about me in the paper," he said. "I had that in the back of my head tonight. It made me come out and play even harder. I felt I had to prove something to Coach Smith. I think I did. That I'm a much better player than he saw at Arkansas. I just had to get my head in the game."
Parker lost his head in the first two minutes. An offensive foul for hooking the defender on the post irked Parker. "I don't understand what these refs call in this league," he said.
As Parker retreated on defense, Smith barked something at the young strongman. Parker barked back. "I was frustrated at the call the ref had made," he said. "Coach said something to me. I snapped at him."
Smith immediately ordered reserve big man Marvin Stone to the scorer's table. Stone came in with 17:54 left in the first half. Parker sat until the 7:07 mark.
Parker re-entered the game a changed player. He scored six points and grabbed two rebounds down the stretch. That helped fuel an 11-0 run that broke a 21-21 tie and propelled Kentucky to a 43-31 halftime lead.
The second half brought more of the same. Parker scored eight of UK's first 15 points. That helped the Cats extend the lead to 60-41 with 15 minutes left.
All his baskets came on low-post power moves. He even hit a nifty left-handed flip shot, thus confirming that the season-long work on his off hand was beginning to pay off.
"I turned to Coach (David) Hobbs or something and said, 'Was that his left hand?' " a visibly pleased Smith said. "He's getting better. He's getting more confident."
Later, Parker even tried a 15-footer. The shot missed badly, but even taking it indicated a growing confidence for the freshman.
"He had it all going," Bogans said with a laugh. "He even tried to shoot a jump shot because he was feeling good."
Smith noted that it helped that Parker went against an Auburn team that started only one player taller than 6-foot-6. A sore back limited the Tigers' regular center, 6-10 Kyle Davis, the SEC leader in blocked shots, to 15 minutes.
"Their post people were not overwhelming as far as size and strength," the UK coach said. "He can post them up deep."
Parker outweighed Auburn's two post players, freshman Abdou Diame and sophomore Marquis Daniels, by 55 and 59 pounds respectively.
"They were tall, just thinner," Parker said. "When I go against an opponent that's thinner than me, I think I can take him any time."
Auburn Coach Cliff Ellis credited the advantage of "Parker and company" as the difference.
"They're big and strong," he said. "They wore us down, just wore us down."
The reward was an SEC championship that seemed unlikely three months ago.
"That goes to show that once things aren't going well, people start to panic," Bogans said. "As long as the family sticks together, we know what we're capable of doing."