Date story published: Sunday, February 27, 2005
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Patrick Sparks made sure that Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith knew he was hot.
"He called over to me, 'Call my number, Coach, call my number,' " Smith said. "I'm serious."
For Sparks yesterday, actions spoke even louder than any hollered word. Sparks, the subject of fan disgruntlement in recent weeks, surely won over his severest critics with a season-high 26 points. His seven three-point baskets, which equaled a career high, paid dividends in sweet triplicate:
* Led the way in a come-from-behind 78-71 victory against Alabama, a team that made the Elite Eight last season and that Smith called a contender to go further this March.
* Enabled UK to clinch its 43rd Southeastern Conference regular-season championship (and fifth in Smith's eight seasons).
* Propelled UK to a record-setting shooting performance from the perimeter. The Cats set a school record for three-point accuracy at 68.4 percent, eclipsing the 66.7-percent net scorching against Wake Forest in the 1993 NCAA Tournament.
"He was great, great," Alabama forward Chuck Davis said of Sparks. "You know what I'm saying? He had a night you dream of."
Smith (and Sparks) saluted the team effort required to hand Alabama its first home-court loss of the season. UK trailed by 14 points late in the first half before riding a combination of perimeter shooting and smothering defense to its 22nd victory in 25 games.
"It took tremendous and extraordinary effort from each individual player," the UK coach said.
A mini-comeback at the end of the first half set the stage for the second half. The Cats, 13-1 in the SEC, trailed 33-19 with less than three minutes left. Back-to-back three-pointers by Ravi Moss and Kelenna Azubuike began a 10-3 run to end the half.
Freshman point guard Rajon Rondo, who contributed 26 minutes while wearing a flak jacket to protect bruised ribs, capped the run. He stripped senior Earnest Shelton of the ball near mid-court and sped to a dunk with 20 seconds left.
When the Cats prevented any last-second Alabama counter (leading scorer Kennedy Winston missed a three-point heave), Smith sensed a sea change in the 36-29 halftime deficit.
"You can feel momentum," he said. "Our guys got a little more energized."
Trailing 47-37 four minutes into the second half, freshman Ramel Bradley contributed a career-high two three-pointers to a 13-0 run.
Sparks took over down the stretch, scoring 17 points in the final 9:17.
"We just got hot," teammate Chuck Hayes said. "We caught on fire. Sparks, anywhere in the gym he was going to hit it."
Sparks hit a conventional three-pointer to tie it at 53. Later he drove the lane, then proceeded along the baseline toward the corner when Alabama blocked his path. Eventually, his Magellan-like circumnavigation got Sparks to the top of the key.
Inexplicably, Alabama defenders backed off Sparks. Perhaps they were tired of chasing him. Whatever, Sparks swished another three-pointer.
"I don't know why they left me open like that," Sparks said.
Alabama, which fell to 21-6 overall and into a first-place tie in the SEC Western Division at 10-4, kept fighting.
Three times in barely more than two minutes Sparks answered Alabama scores with baskets. He played off a Lukasz Obrzut screen for a three-pointer. He curled off another screen to hit a three-pointer over Shelton, Alabama's top perimeter marksman who suffered through a 1-for-5 game.
Then when Alabama switched the taller Winston onto Sparks, the UK guard drove the lane and hit a leaning flip shot.
"Just me reading the matchup," Sparks said. "I can probably go by Winston. Against Shelton, I shot over him. That's just me reading the 'D.' "
Almost always poker-faced in interviews, Sparks acknowledged his hot hand.
"I caught my rhythm kind of early," he said. "Shooting is a lot about rhythm. You get that good feeling, you know you're going to have a good night."
Sparks, who has alternated good shooting games (20 of 40 from beyond the arc in five of the last nine games) with bad (three of 21 in the other four), shrugged off recent fan calls for his benching.
"I just knew I had to go out and keep playing my game," he said, "and knocking them down."
Smith was more emphatic when asked his reaction to fans' advice.
"Did I make a change?" the UK coach said.
Uh, no he hadn't.
"I rest my case."