Date story published: Thursday, December 9, 2004
Late in the first half last night, Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith turned to assistant Scott Rigot with a question.
"Twelve straight possessions, right?" Smith asked.
To which, Rigot corrected his boss. "No," the assistant said, "13."
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What was Smith counting? Baskets? Crisp passes? Charges taken? Uh, no. Smith was counting scoreless possessions in a dismal six-minute stretch.
Armed with the facts, the UK coach delivered what Shagari Alleyne called a "very firm, very, very firm" halftime scolding. Thereafter, UK played a very fine, very, very fine second half en route to a 71-40 victory over outmanned Morehead State.
"It's like a chain reaction," said Alleyne, who contributed career highs of 11 points, eight rebounds and six blocks. "He got on us and we got on them."
Smith downplayed the power of his rhetoric. "I just looked at the stats," he said. UK made only a third of its first-half shots. As for that emphasis on rebounding inspired by a 51-30 pounding on the boards at North Carolina last weekend, UK barely outrebounded (24-23 in the half) a Morehead State team that had only freshmen taller than 6-foot-7.
"This is a group I'm still trying to figure out," Smith said of the Cats. "I'm trying to find that identity that's going to make them play hard all the time. That's the challenge right now."
Kentucky dominated early. The Cats led 24-8 with 8:58 left in the half, a span similar to the beating UK took early at North Carolina.
Morehead State made only three of its first 17 shots. Better still, UK played defense without fouling, a point of emphasis after the foul-fest at North Carolina. The Cats committed only one foul in the first 13 minutes against Morehead State.
All the sweet vibrations soured down the stretch of the first half. After freshman center Randolph Morris scored on a putback with 8:58 left, Kentucky did not score again for more than six minutes. In that stretch, UK went those 13 straight possessions without a point. For those counting, it was six turnovers and zero-for-seven shooting.
Smith credited Morehead State's switch to a zone, which he said "made us a little less aggressive" in that span.
Whatever Smith said at halftime, it produced results. Kentucky outscored Morehead State 20-0 to start the half. That put UK ahead 49-23.
The Cats found their three-point shooting eye. Kelenna Azubuike, who led all scorers with 21 points, hit a three-pointer with 19 minutes left. It was UK's first trey of the game and extended the consecutive game streak of at least one trey to 547, the third longest active string in college basketball.
Barely a minute later, Sparks hit a three-pointer off the fastbreak.
"In the second half, we had a lot more energy," Smith said. "Kelenna and Patrick got us going. They made open shots and pushed the ball."
The most memorable play in the 20-0 run came when Morris threw down a thunderous two-hand jam as a trailer on the fastbreak. Sparks made the pass.
The play punctuated a personal revival for Morris. Much like UK, he had a sub-par first half, playing only seven minutes.
Morehead State crumpled. The Eagles did not get a point until Josh Reed made two free throws with 14:47 left.
Morehead State didn't get a basket until Reed hit a three-pointer (after clearing a defender with a well-placed swing of the ball) at the 11:06 mark. Reed's 10 points made him the Eagles' only double-digit scorer.
Morehead State's frustration spilled over with 16:30 left. Freshman guard Tramaine Stevens fouled Morris hard on a dunk attempt. After the whistle blew, Stevens flipped the ball into Morris' chest to draw a technical foul.
Morehead State Coach Kyle Macy, the former UK star, knew Smith would challenge the Cats at halftime. He assumed UK would respond. He figured his outmanned team would lose.
"That wasn't a surprise," Macy said of UK's second-half dominance. "It was an unfortunate reality."