Date story published: Sunday, March 12, 2006
NASHVILLE -- Kentucky walked the close-game tightrope again yesterday. Gravity won. Maybe the Cats did not think they needed their balancing pole or could not resist looking down.
In a game rich with second-guess possibilities, UK lost to South Carolina 65-61 in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals. A curious last-minute strategy on fouling and an early abandonment of big man Randolph Morris marked Kentucky's first loss in 19 semifinal appearances since the SEC revived its tournament in 1979.
Given UK's unusually small margin for error this season, each debatable move can tip the scales of victory or defeat.
"I guess if you play with fire enough, you're going to get burned," Ravi Moss said after UK's record in games decided by five points or fewer slipped to 6-6.
Kentucky (21-12) figured to pound away inside. Against South Carolina's undersized front line last month, Morris got his only double-double of the season (13 points, 11 rebounds).
But Morris touched the ball only once before the first television timeout and made his only first-half basket at the 6:04 mark.
"That was the emphasis for this game: get the ball inside," Bobby Perry said. "We know their post men are not the biggest. Randolph could have been a huge factor. We probably did put up too many outside shots."
Patrick Sparks swished a corner three-pointer on UK's first possession and then seemed intent on reliving the six treys he made in Columbia last month. He launched three more shots and committed a turnover before UK Coach Tubby Smith benched the five starters at the 14:54 TV timeout.
When asked about his rapid-fire shooting, Sparks chuckled and said, "I don't know. I just take shots when they're open, really."
Interestingly, Sparks opened up the second half with a three-pointer from the opposite corner. This time, he didn't shoot again for more than three minutes.
Kentucky got the ball to Morris more often in the second half when he scored 10 of his 12 points. One of his free throws gave UK its largest second-half lead, 45-39, with 13:27 left.
South Carolina rallied with three-point shooting. The Gamecocks made seven in the second half, including two by junior college transfer Bryce Sheldon. Sheldon, who had four three-pointers and 12 points in the game, put South Carolina ahead 56-53 with 6:16 left.
Although he had made only two of 12 three-point attempts in the last six games (and just five of 21 in the last nine), Sheldon figured in UK's game plan.
"We knew he was D.O.C.," said Perry, who then provided the translation: dead-on-catch, which means he can catch and shoot from a set position.
Sheldon's shots came in a flurry that saw South Carolina make four straight to take its largest lead, 59-53, with 5:41 left.
A free throw by Joe Crawford, who led UK with 13 points, narrowed the deficit to 61-58 with 1:56 left. It stayed there after Crawford missed an open three and South Carolina called time with 1:01 left.
Having committed only three team fouls, UK chose not to try to keep the margin at three and potentially get the ball back with more than 25 seconds left.
Instead, Kentucky initially tried for a steal and then fouled to get its team fouls to four (56.6 seconds left), five (48.4 seconds left) and six (44.3 seconds left).
Then things got squirrely. Instead of another foul to send South Carolina to the line, UK saw point guard Tre Kelley dribble off almost 10 seconds before finding forward Brandon Wallace alone at the basket. Wallace's dunk put the Gamecocks ahead 63-58 with 33.8 seconds left.
"Morris was my man," Wallace said. "He ran off me to get to Tre."
In his post-game news conference, Smith said that a player failed to rotate down to Wallace. As for the overall strategy, he first said the idea was to make South Carolina make one-and-one free throws if the Cats couldn't get a steal. A few minutes later, he said the Cats wanted to defend and get the ball back.
When asked about the strategy, Associate Coach David Hobbs said he thought UK trailed by more than three points and could not get the ball back before the game clock expired.
Sophomore Ramel Bradley said the plan was, "Once we got to the sixth foul, we wanted to get the right person with the ball, to foul, and there'd be a good chance he'd miss."
That person was forward Renaldo Balkman, a 57.6-percent foul shooter this season, or another Gamecock Bradley could not remember.
Rajon Rondo and Sparks, who each made improbable three-pointers to beat South Carolina 80-78 in Rupp Arena, got a chance to duplicate the feat. This time, Sparks missed from the right corner and Rondo couldn't hit from the top of the key.
Yes, Wallace said, a moment of deja Blue flashed through his mind.
"Of course," he said while noting South Carolina's string of close losses (six by three points or fewer this season).
"When we've been through what we've been through, we know anything's possible, especially with those two guys."