Date story published: Wednesday, December 24, 2003
Tubby Smith cleared his bench and Kentucky cleaned Eastern Kentucky's clock last night.
So UK's 101-72 victory seemed ideal. An injury-free workout with no hangover from last weekend's rout of Indiana and no distraction from Saturday's showdown with archrival Louisville.
"I thought we were sharp," Smith said. "We've gotten off to good starts in every game. That's the key to controlling the tempo and flow of the game."
Led by Gerald Fitch, Kentucky shot exceptionally well from the perimeter. Fitch, who led all scorers with 26 points, made a career-high five of seven three-point shots. The Cats hit a season-high 11 three-pointers in routing Eastern.
That shooting was on EKU Coach Travis Ford's mind when asked afterward about the advice he'd give Rick Pitino.
"Wow," Ford said. "That's a good question. You better just hope they're off. Pray they don't shoot the three and you have to handle their pressure."
Ford dismissed the notion that EKU gave Kentucky a preview look at Louisville. What could UK take from the beating of Eastern and apply to Louisville?
"Nothing," Ford said. "Louisville is a totally different team. Louisville is much quicker and shooting the ball really, really well. They're one of the best shooting teams Coach Pitino has had in a long, long time."
Kentucky (7-0) wasted no time in establishing its superiority. The Cats outscored Eastern 18-4 inside the first six minutes and never trailed.
Ford attributed the quick K.O. to his team being in awe of the surroundings. But he also lauded UK's physical play. "When they set screens, you hear it," he said.
Although Eastern won the tap, having to retreat to its own baseline to secure the ball, UK stole the first pass and converted the steal into a Cliff Hawkins layup 10 seconds into the game.
It was a lead Kentucky never surrendered.
Much to Smith's delight, Fitch and Hawkins set a tone by diving early for loose balls.
"Something we really stressed after the Indiana game," the UK coach said, "because I thought we got beat (by IU) in the hustle plays."
The momentum carried UK to unusually good perimeter shooting. The Cats made six perimeter shots in the first half. That equaled the most in a half this season. UK also made six in the second half against Tennessee Tech. UK had made no more than three perimeter shots in a half the last four games.
No one was hotter than Fitch, who swished four three-pointers in less than five minutes in the second half.
"When Gerald is open and he's got open looks, he's an excellent shooter," Smith said. "When he takes bad shots, he's not a good shooter."
Fitch credited his teammates for getting him the ball and downplayed his shot-making. "Nothing spectacular," he said. "I'm supposed to make open shots."
UK led 48-32 at the half, a margin made deceptive by Smith's liberal substituting. He replaced all five starters at the 14:03 mark. Every player except walk-ons Matt Heissenbuttel and Preston LeMaster played in the first half.
Smith's generous substitutions required Kentucky to re-start the blowout. No problem. With Kelenna Azubuike hitting back-to-back three-pointers, the Cats scored the first 11 points of the second half. That began a 19-4 run that prompted Smith to start going to his bench before the half's first television timeout.
Kentucky defended well throughout. EKU, which averaged 6.3 three-pointers coming into the game, did not make a trey until the 11:34 mark of the second half. The Colonels' leading scorer, point guard Matt Witt, missed all nine of his shots.
Smith credited Hawkins. "Cliff is the type of guy, he takes a challenge," the UK coach said. "Cliff has that ability to get after you."