Date story published: Monday, March 20, 2006
PHILADELPHIA -- Kentucky put mighty Connecticut into a grinding possession-by-possession thriller. Kentucky distanced itself from its season of struggle and made top seed Connecticut stare at the abyss reserved for what-might-have-beens (a place UK might reflect upon this off-season).
But Kentucky did not do what it most desired: beat Connecticut.
In the popular vernacular of the NCAA Tournament, UConn survived and advanced, beating Kentucky 87-83 yesterday in a second-round game.
Despite obvious superiority evidenced by a dominating first half, the Huskies needed clutch free-throw shooting, uncanny rebounding from Hilton Armstrong, and poised playmaking from point guard Marcus Williams down the stretch to hold off UK.
One of Kentucky's grittiest players, Patrick Sparks, led the gritty effort. He equaled a career-high 28 points, 19 of which came in the second half.
Although UConn had a reputation for allowing leads to dissolve into the mist of indifference, Coach Jim Calhoun credited Kentucky's effort as the key factor.
"We can be fragile at times," he said. "That's no secret. But we weren't fragile today. Kentucky kept making exceptional play after exceptional play. But we made exceptional plays.
"We may have been a little fragile against Albany (in the first round on Friday). But that wasn't the story today. This was a win over Kentucky."
Calhoun meant the Kentucky at its customary Blue-blooded best.
It took a while to show itself.
Connecticut (29-3) outplayed Kentucky in the first half. Led by super sixth man Rashad Anderson, who scored all 14 of his points in the first half after going scoreless against Albany, the Huskies made 51.1 percent of their shots and led 43-31 at intermission.
UK missed 16 of its first 23 shots to quickly fall into catch-up mode.
"We knew if we didn't come out and play more aggressively, we'd get killed," Sheray Thomas said of UK's halftime mood.
Kentucky (22-13) faced its largest halftime deficit since Jan. 29, or the Arkansas game, when the Cats overcame an early 18-point deficit to win.
Led by Bobby Perry and Sparks, who combined for 33 second-half points, Kentucky nearly duplicated that feat against a UConn team that ranked second nationally in field-goal defense (37.5 percent).
"We felt they would let us back in the game," Ravi Moss said, "and they did that. We had to take the fight to them."
Sparks and Perry scored UK's first 12 points of the second half, but UConn countered to match its largest lead of the game, at 58-45 with 13:37 left.
Kentucky got within striking distance by making seven of 14 three-pointers in the second half. A Perry trey closed the deficit to four points at 66-62 with 7:58 left. Williams, who had 16 of his team-high 20 points in the second half, answered with a driving layup.
Rajon Rondo's three-pointer with the shot clock down to a second got UK within two points, making it 74-72 at the 3:16 mark.
Then Williams again used a high-post screen to get a driving layup, this time while being fouled. The UConn point guard missed the free throw, but Armstrong beat Randolph Morris for the rebound. Morris was "a little lazy" on the play, Armstrong said in one of the few post-game comments that veered from the teams' mutual admiration.
With the extra possession, Armstrong got a putback that extended UConn's lead, making the game 78-72 with 2:42 left.
After two Sparks free throws, Armstrong again rebounded a missed UConn free throw. After beating Thomas to the ball, Armstrong converted the extra possession by making one of two free throws.
Unbelievably, his missed free throw bounced back to Armstrong at the foul line. UConn got a driving layup from freshman Craig Austrie to take an 81-74 lead with 1:51 left.
"We did a miraculous job on the offensive boards," UConn guard Denham Brown said.
Armstrong said he did not charge aggressively to the boards on the rebounds, but instead took a step back to find "an open path."
"UConn was quicker to the ball," Perry said. "You can't rely on the way the ball bounces. You have to go get it."
Rondo suggested the odds should have favored Kentucky on those rebounds. "They had only two players on the line," he said. "We had four. For that to happen three times in a row, that's heartbreaking."
With Sparks leading the way, Kentucky kept fighting. Sparks hit the third of his three second-half treys, then fed Thomas for a layup to bring Kentucky within two, 81-79, in the final minute.
The Cats got within two points one more time. But UConn stayed ahead by making six of six free throws (four by Williams and a clinching pair by Rudy Gay with 3.3 seconds left).
This led UConn center Josh Boone to say of Kentucky, "They proved they belong among the elite teams in the country."
But, alas, Kentucky will not be among the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.