Date story published: Monday, January 30, 2006
In yesterday's episode of Kentucky basketball's serial season, our feline heroes got tied to the railroad tracks again.
This time the onrushing train was Arkansas, which built up a heady steam in the first half as it barreled toward the seemingly helpless protagonists in blue.
UK Coach Tubby Smith, who hoped to come to the rescue once more, offered one telling message at halftime.
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"You've got to be on empty when you're done with this game," he said.
On cue, Kentucky played harder, defended better, rebounded better, set a season-high for points in a half with 55 and, oh, yeah, freed itself from the tracks just in time to win 78-76.
"At the beginning of the game, I didn't think we were going to have much of a chance to get back in the game," Smith said.
Kentucky, which matched a season high with a fourth straight victory, fell behind by as many as 18 points in the first half. The Cats missed 13 of their first 17 shots and scored only seven points in the first 11 minutes and 53 seconds.
"Their zone had us standing around some," Smith said. "And their athleticism was really intimidating us for a while."
Heightening anxiety, leading scorer Ronnie Brewer didn't score in the first 11 minutes and Arkansas led 20-7.
Kentucky trailed 35-23 at halftime. Defeat loomed.
"I don't know what Tubby told them at halftime," Arkansas Coach Stan Heath said. "But that certainly was a different team and they certainly played a totally different game than what they played in the first half. Some of that had to do with us, but they came out very aggressive."
UK (14-6 overall, 4-2 in the Southeastern Conference) had a simple plan. "Give better effort," Bobby Perry said.
Only one league team had made better than 40 percent of its shots against Arkansas. But Kentucky shot 60 percent in the second half (21-for-35) and, incredibly for a team that's struggled with offensive execution all season, got points on all but five trips downcourt in the final 15 minutes. And one of the scoreless trips was point guard Rajon Rondo dribbling out the final 1.7 seconds. On another, leading scorer Randolph Morris missed two free throws.
"We were right on our average in the first half," Heath said of UK's 38.5-percent shooting in the opening 20 minutes. "And they shellacked that in the second half. Credit to them.
"At the same time, our intensity and maybe the grit we showed defensively slipped."
Arkansas (14-6, 3-4) led 39-23 early in the second half. Then UK began capitalizing on fast-break turnovers. Five times in the first five minutes Arkansas turned over the ball. UK scored 18 points off turnovers in the second half.
"We gave them too many easy baskets, point blank," Arkansas swingman Jonathon Modica said.
A string of three-pointers, the fourth by Sheray Thomas (his first since the Louisville game Dec. 17), got Kentucky close. The Cats finally tied it when Morris made a reverse layup with 6:48 left. That made it 57-57, the first deadline since 2-2.
Morris, who scored 19 points and also led UK with eight rebounds, put the Cats ahead for good on a putback three-point play with 6:03 left.
The stretch was all Kentucky. The Cats held Arkansas without a basket from the 8:19 mark till only 1:36 remained. Meanwhile, UK scored like clockwork. In one stretch, the Cats got points on 11 of 13 trips downcourt. UK got points in 11 of its last 13 trips downcourt.
That produced a 70-61 lead to protect in the final 1:42.
"We got to the point we were executing to perfection," Morris said. "It was a pretty neat thing to be a part of."
Morris acknowledged that it helped knowing Arkansas had trouble holding leads, most notably letting a 12-point advantage slip away in an overtime loss at Alabama.
"They had big leads against teams," Morris said, "and they just gave that away. They squandered leads."
The final score was a bit deceiving. Inside the final 20 seconds, Arkansas made two three-pointers, the second with 1.7 on the clock, to set the final score.
By then, the credits were ready to roll on another exciting episode of Kentucky basketball.