Date story published: Monday, March 24, 2003
NASHVILLE -- Kentucky and Utah continued their NCAA Tournament rivalry last night. As expected, it again resembled a showdown between a steamroller and bottle of milk.
Kentucky crushed Utah.
Never trailing en route to a 74-54 victory, UK rode a palpable wave of momentum into the Mideast Regional semifinals next week in Minneapolis. The Cats next play Wisconsin on Thursday.
Kentucky, which extended the nation's longest winning streak to 25 games, wasted no time imposing its dominance. It showed immediately in the low post, then extended quickly over the entire court.
Center Marquis Estill had his way with two Utah big men. Estill, who posted only his third double-double of the season (18 points and 10 rebounds), took starter Tim Frost to school on UK's first possession. The Cats threw over the fronting Frost and Estill wheeled to an easy layup.
Only 62 seconds into the game, Utah Coach Rick Majerus tried backup Cameron Koford, a 7-foot senior. Koford played behind Estill, not that it made much difference. Estill posted up for a basket and converted an offensive rebound into another score before Frost returned at the 16:47 mark.
What unlocked Estill's dominating performance was Utah's decision to defend him one-on-one.
"His eyes kind of light up," point guard Cliff Hawkins said of Estill. "We knew that when he got the ball, it'd either be two points or a foul. It was almost automatic."
When asked the difference between beating one defender or a collapsing defense, Estill blurted a mild expletive. "One-on-one coverage is always to my advantage," he said.
With Hawkins shooting well (2-for-3 in the first half), any lingering thoughts of a shocking upset disappeared. UK, which never trailed, built its first double-digit lead at the 12:58 mark. The Cats extended the cushion to as much as 18 before settling for a 37-23 halftime lead.
Kentucky's ever-present defense stymied Utah's patient offense. At the television timeout with 11:18 left, the Utes had only one more basket (three) than air balls (two).
Utah missed nine straight shots, part of a 4-for-18 stretch of bricklaying in the guts of the first half. If trying the same thing repeatedly and hoping for a different result defines insanity, as Bill Clinton once observed, the Utes keenly tried to solve Kentucky's defense.
After trying to establish inside scoring early, Utah switched to looking for the best shot while patiently milking the shot clock. Neither worked. So the Utes resorted to repeated drives into the basket, which brought limited success.
All the while, Kentucky had that "automatic" option in Estill inside.
Utah Coach Rick Majerus explained the decision to defend Estill one-on-one as the least distasteful option. He ruled out a zone, which the Utes played sparingly this season.
"If I had a zone, I'd play a zone," he said. "If I had a veteran team or Britton, I'd play triangle and two. But I had to try to patch these guys together."
Britton Johnsen, Utah's best player, missed the game because he's still recovering from mononucleosis. The Utes started two freshmen and counted two others among their first nine players.
UK's diversified attack -- nine different Cats have scored 13 or more points in a game this season -- made help-defense on Estill a gamble.
"We just had too many holes to plug up," Majerus said.
Still Utah (25-8) battled fiercely, as Majerus promised. Though trailing by 17 early in the second half, the Utes forced Kentucky to call timeout by scoring seven straight points. That mini-run, sparked by a three-pointer by feisty sophomore Marc Jackson, reduced UK's lead to 49-39 with 12:41 left.
"He could see we were losing concentration," Gerald Fitch said of UK Coach Tubby Smith. "We were playing into their hands, taking quick shots, not moving the ball. We started to get individual."
After the timeout, UK went to Estill, who converted the feed into a reverse layup.
"Estill really took it to Frost," Majerus said. "And Koford was no competition, and it wasn't like he didn't really try."
The spirit was willing but --as always with Utah against Kentucky -- the flesh was weak.