Date story published: Sunday, December 16, 2001
A team good enough to beat No. 1 Duke is supposed to rout an opponent like Kentucky State.
Kentucky marked itself as such a team yesterday.
The Cats' steady improvement this early season cascaded on the outmanned Thorobreds in the form of a 118-63 victory.
Besides scoring a record number of points for the Tubby Smith era as coach, UK also broke the Rupp Arena record for assists with 33.
"That's going to be a key ingredient to the success of this team," Smith said of the display of crisp, finely targeted passing. "Because we have got a lot of players who can score. Now it's a matter of delivering the pass at the right time at the right place so we can finish."
UK also shot 59.8 percent, a season-high accuracy attributed to an almost 5-to-1 ratio of two-pointers to three-pointers and K-State crumbling like the Taliban in the face of superior firepower.
"Kentucky is a great team," said K-State Coach Winston Bennett, the former UK star. "They proved it to us. They put us in our place."
Of course, K-State (2-4) is a Division II team, make that a rebuilding Division II team that gladly filled a void created when Georgia Tech opted out of Kentucky's schedule.
No one had to tell Kentucky that it will take a giant step up in class Tuesday against Duke.
"They're not as athletic as Duke," guard Keith Bogans said of K-State. "They don't have great players like Duke has. You know, it's two totally different programs."
The question after the big victory was this: Can UK use it as a springboard going against Duke? Or will domination of K-State breed a false sense of security in the Cats?
"Any time you can have a game and build confidence and have guys score some points and do some good things, it always helps," guard J.P. Blevins said. "I don't think there's any negative to it."
Smith seemed to agree.
"Today, we were really on track," he said. "We've been playing better. Today was a good indication that we could execute well. We kind of took the wind out of their sails."
Repeating his fast start against North Carolina last weekend, leading scorer Tayshaun Prince came out blazing. He hit a three-pointer and a turnaround shot from the foul line the first two times he touched the ball. That got UK started to a quick 7-0 lead that grew to as much nine points early.
But Prince, who finished with 18 points, did not feel the need to shoot down K-State. "The key today was to get everybody involved," he said, "because we're going to need everybody for Tuesday. So you try to distribute the ball."
Cliff Hawkins, who returned to his role as the starting point guard after a one-game interruption, had a career-high eight assists. The other two starters on the perimeter, Keith Bogans and Gerald Fitch, matched their career highs with six and five assists, respectively.
"Every time I got the ball, I felt two (defenders) running at me," said Bogans, who rebounded from his two-point fizzle against Carolina with 6-for-12 shooting and 17 points against the 'Breds. "So somebody was open."
Smith blamed himself for K-State's best stretch. After falling behind by nine, the 'Breds closed within 17-14 against a makeshift lineup with forwards Erik Daniels and Chuck Hayes on the perimeter with Blevins.
"That was probably my fault," the UK coach said. "We had a lineup with very poor mismatches. They were much smaller (and quicker). We had no one to defend them. They were breaking us down with penetration."
Smith reinserted the starters and Kentucky promptly re-established its dominance.
A 55-32 halftime lead, which marked UK's highest-scoring first half of the season, only served a prelude for an even more one-sided second half.
The Cats scored on their first 11 possessions of the second half, a string snapped when Hawkins missed a breakway dunk after making a steal.
"I just missed it," he said. "I didn't get up like I was supposed to."
That was one of only two misses Kentucky had in its first 17 shots of the second half.
By then, UK had built an 89-40 lead and Smith began getting every player on the roster onto the floor to share in the good vibrations.
Despite leading by more than 20 points over the final 25 minutes (by more than 30 over the final 18 minutes, by more than 40 over the final 15:50), UK did not abandon the teamwork in the extended garbage time. The Cats had more assists in the second half (17) than the first (16).
"It shows the unselfishness," Smith said of the passing. "The guys are starting to appreciate and trust each other."
Now comes Duke.
"Since the first game of the year, you've seen a little bit of progress in every game," Blevins said. "That's the kind of improvement we're going to have to keep having.
"Certainly against Duke, it's going to take everything we've got."