Date story published: Sunday, February 19, 2006
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- One day last week, Bobby Perry couldn't resist going to the equipment room to get a sneak peek at the throwback jerseys Kentucky would wear at South Carolina this weekend. "Just to see how they'd look," he said.
UK's throwback equipment manager, beloved Mr. Wildcat Bill Keightley, made a suggestion as he unfolded the jersey style worn by the program's 1978 national champions.
"Now you have to go out there and play like the guys who played then," said Keightley, who began working in UK's equipment room in 1962.
"Man, you're right," Perry responded. "You're right."
Kentucky didn't approach the 1978 level of play in beating South Carolina 79-66 yesterday. But more importantly, the Cats did not resemble the disjointed team that put itself in speculation about the NCAA Tournament's proverbial bubble.
"A world of difference," UK Coach Tubby Smith said of the improvement. "Like night and day, to be honest with you, the second half especially."
Guard Patrick Sparks led the way. After making only one of three first-half shots (a floater in the lane with 16:48 left), he missed only once in the second half: another leaning floater that, this time, he banked too hard off the glass with about 10 minutes left.
"The uniforms could have helped," said Sparks, who scored a season-high 26 points. "Made us play more like a team. Kentucky's tradition, it's incomparable to anything else. If we keep playing like this, good things will happen."
Sparks made six of six three-point shots in the second half. He hit from the right side, from the left side, from NBA length at the top of the key in a shot reminiscent of the 29-foot bomb he dropped on South Carolina in Lexington and, maybe most outrageously, he took an inbounds pass in front of the Kentucky bench and swished a fadeaway three-pointer.
"I like to see anybody get going, especially Pat," teammate Ravi Moss said. "He starts feeling it, you know he's feeling it. He's nodding his head and getting all hunch-back, starts moving a little bit better. It kind of gets you in trouble because you watch him instead of going to the offensive glass."
Perry pleaded guilty.
"I didn't have to look at the ball," he said of Sparks' 7-for-8 shooting in the second half. "I just turned around and started cheering."
The cheering continued after the game. As Sparks entered the locker room after being interviewed as UK radio's player of the game, his teammates applauded.
The Cats, 17-9 overall and 7-5 in the Southeastern Conference, said they played well in the first half. Too many missed shots, but good shots, put UK behind 28-25 at the break.
Sparks' first three-pointer put Kentucky ahead for good at 33-30.
"The first one I hit felt real good," Sparks said. "Then I got another one pretty quick after that (three minutes later). Two in a row, I was feeling pretty good."
Asked whether he felt "Alabama hot," a reference to the 7-for-10 three-point shooting at Tuscaloosa last season, Sparks said, "Maybe a little hotter."
When South Carolina narrowed a 49-35 deficit to eight, Sparks hit back-to-back three-pointers to get the Kentucky lead back to 59-45. On the second, Lukasz Obrzut and Sheray Thomas held up their arms on the UK bench as if signaling three-point baskets (or thanking heaven for Sparks' bountiful display).
"It's almost like by impulse (that) tells you it's not your day," South Carolina Coach Dave Odom said.
Sparks' shooting moved South Carolina guard Tarence Kinsey to say, "Incredible. That's all you can say. That's really incredible."
Moss jokingly chastised a reporter who asked for a reaction to Sparks' shooting. "I mean, y'all have seen it before," he said. "It shouldn't be a surprise anymore. Sparks can shoot the ball. (He's) one of the best shooters in the country."
The surprise might have been how Kentucky won. South Carolina, 14-11 overall and 5-7 in the SEC, was the hot team coming into the game. The Gamecocks had made 52 percent of their shots (42 percent from three-point range) in winning three straight. But UK limited Carolina to 39.1-percent shooting.
Offensively, UK bounced back from a sloppy first half to record 13 assists and only two turnovers after the break.
The Cats saw new vistas of opportunity unfolding.
"You can't save a season with one game," Moss said. "But it definitely can get you going in the right direction."
Signs on this road looked blue. Make that Kentucky blue.
"Everybody decided we were finally playing well," Moss said. "We were playing together, and we were playing Kentucky basketball. Finally."