Date story published: Thursday, March 2, 2006
KNOXVILLE -- Staring at a soul-crushing abyss where post-season hopes die, Kentucky beat Tennessee and its close-game demons last night.
The Cats shook off an early body blow to outperform the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division champions in the kind of possession-by-possession game they've lost more than once, most recently at LSU last weekend.UK Coach Tubby Smith suggested this most-satisfying 80-78 victory at Tennessee validated his team as a legitimate post-season contender.
"I think this shows we can compete against anyone," he said. "We have the ability to go on the road and win a game like that. It's a big feather on our hat.
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"Plus the mental state of the players. They're real excited about the win."
Kentucky, 19-10 overall, improved to 9-6 in the SEC. That made Sunday's regular-season finale against Florida a competition for the division's remaining first-round bye in next week's SEC Tournament. Had UK lost, Florida would have clinched the bye by beating Georgia last night.
UK had many heroes. Randolph Morris dominated against the height-challenged Vols. He scored a season-high 22 points and grabbed nine rebounds. He also eased a season-long problem by tying a career high of 10 free-throw attempts.
When asked if the Cats intended to ride Morris inside, forward Rekalin Sims said, "He's always the plan. Randolph is the plan. He's the program. He and (Rajon) Rondo are the program."
Rondo added 16 points (his second-highest total against an SEC team in his career) and made eight assists. He excelled in a spread offense by driving for five straight layups midway through the second half as the game settled into a battle of nerves and will.
Brandon Stockton, who again started in Rondo's place at point guard, suggested those drives set the tone for make-or-break execution.
"When you're shooting a bunch of layups, you're going to execute," Stockton said.
Patrick Sparks, usually the player to deliver the clutch shots, led the defense. His full attention on Chris Lofton limited the Tennessee star to nine shots and 15 points, or less than half the 31 he scored in the Vols' victory at Kentucky last month.
"I just wanted to deny his touches and not worry about my offense," said Sparks, who scored six points. "Just concentrate on my defense."
The Cats saw defending Lofton as the key to handing Tennessee its third loss in four games. The Vols fell to 20-6 overall and 11-4 in the SEC.
"We didn't think anybody else for Tennessee was going to beat us," Stockton said.
The third and final Joe Crawford three-pointer put Kentucky ahead for good, 76-73, with 4:26 left. Cheered by a crowd of 24,108, Tennessee hung tough and trailed 80-78 with 90 seconds left.
The Cats dodged a bullet when C.J. Watson's three-pointer went in and out. Then Rondo blocked Watson's driving attempt.
After JaJuan Smith missed the front end of a one-and-one with 52.6 seconds left, Tennessee had two more chances to tie it or win.
Smith overdribbled and lost the ball after Crawford missed a three-pointer.
After Crawford missed the front end of a one-and-one with 8.1 seconds left (and Morris's tip-in refused to go in), Watson got off an open three-point shot at the buzzer. It missed.
That the victory would come down to a last-second shot seemed unlikely eight minutes into the game.
Tennessee made eight of its first 11 shots and zipped to a 21-7 lead.
When UK called time with 12:08 left in the first half, Stockton expected the team to be greeted by an angry coach. That wasn't the case.
"He wasn't mad," Stockton said of the UK coach. "He just told us to stay poised and have fun."
The Cats did, although Sims acknowledged the sight of Watson rising for a potential game-winner at the buzzer evoked memories of UK's close-game defeats.
"I was like, oh, no, what's going to happen here?" Sims said. "He got a good look. He got a real nice look. Either it's going to go in or it's not."