Date story published: Sunday, February 9, 2003
OXFORD, Miss. -- No letdown. No letup.
Four days after humiliating No. 1 Florida, Kentucky stretched its winning streak to 12 games by dispatching Mississippi in a similarly thorough manner. Its defense yet again denying the opposition half a chance, UK rolled 80-62 yesterday.
Kentucky limited Ole Miss to seven baskets in the first half, the sixth time in the most recent 12 halves that the opponent scored seven or fewer baskets. The Cats led 11-0 inside the first four minutes, 19-4 when Ole Miss called time with 11:37 left and 44-20 at intermission.
So much for Kentucky suffering a Gator-aided hangover.
Ole Miss Coach Rod Barnes, who suffered the second-most lopsided home loss in his five seasons, saluted the Cats.
"Basically, all I can say is we got beat," he said. "Kentucky is a very good basketball team, a very determined basketball team, a very talented basketball team. We were just outmatched, plain and simple."
Barnes not only cried uncle, he did the unthinkable in competitive athletics: He recoiled from the idea of try, try again to beat Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference Tournament next month.
"Never in this league at any particular time in my five years have I not wanted to necessarily see a team in the SEC Tournament," he said. "If they're playing like this, I don't want to see them."
Kentucky, which improved to 18-3 overall and 8-0 in the SEC, used man-to-man defense almost exclusively in knocking out the Rebels. Ole Miss had only one basket in the first eight minutes and four in the first 15. Its only players with double-digit scoring averages, forward Justin Reed (14.8 ppg) and guard Aaron Harper (13.9 ppg), shot a combined 2-for-14 in the first half.
Reed, mostly guarded by Chuck Hayes, didn't score until the 13:29 mark of the second half.
"It wasn't us," Barnes said of the Rebels' 7-for-27 shooting in the first half. "It was them. It was their defense."
UK Coach Tubby Smith tried to put yet another suffocating defensive effort -- and his team's sizzling 63.3-percent shooting in the first half -- in perspective.
"Going on the road, coming off a big win, I thought it was as good a half as we can play," he said.
Kentucky used backdoor plays so effectively early that Ole Miss abandoned its signature pressure man-to-man defense barely six minutes into the game. The Cats also got dominating inside play from center Marquis Estill, whose five first-half blocks were one short of his career high. Guards Keith Bogans and Gerald Fitch made nine of 15 shots.
Maybe most striking was unsung Erik Daniels, who missed practices last week because of an infected gland in his right armpit. Daniels scored a career-high 20 points to lead four double-digit scorers.
"It's not that we left him alone," Barnes said of Daniels. "They find where they can go. That's what you call a team. That's why they're good. They're not great individuals. They are a great basketball team."
Barnes went so far as to anoint UK the best SEC team in the last two or three years.
"I didn't say the most talented team," the Ole Miss coach said. "They beat us in every way. What I mean is they beat us on backdoor cuts. They were too tough for us inside. When we forced their big guys out, they drove us to the basket. That just doesn't happen to us. Again, they've been doing it to everyone."
Ole Miss, which lost its fourth straight to fall to 12-8 overall and 3-6 in the SEC, saw a united Kentucky effort this season. That contrasted with Team Turmoil of 2001-2002.
"Nobody on this team is thinking of the NBA," Ole Miss guard David Sanders said of UK. "They're thinking of winning championships and it's paying off for them."
Barnes echoed the thought. "It's a hunger they have now to get where they feel like they belong," he said. "They're on a mission."
True enough, Daniels said.
"Oh yeah," he said. "I'm sure everybody wants it a little more after what happened last year. It seems like everybody is more unselfish this year. Everybody likes each other on this team."
With one dominating performance after another, what's not to like?
"They've put it all together," Barnes said of the Cats. "They're a great team."
After a pause, he added, "I don't use 'great' often."