Date story published: Sunday, January 14, 2007
Like a basketball Charles Atlas, center Randolph Morris carried Kentucky through the first two months of the season. Double-doubles on a routine basis. Automatic two-pointers in the low post. A new-found zeal for rebounding. A swinging-gate defender transformed into a shot-blocking presence.
Then Morris looked -- if not the 98-pound weakling -- then a bit punchy in the first 32 minutes against Mississippi State last night. His most memorable moment might have been leaving the court because of a cut over his left eye that required four stitches to close.
"He'd been carrying this team all year," teammate Joe Crawford said of Morris' slow start. "It kind of hit him tonight."
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If so, Morris hit back down the stretch of a hard-fought 64-60 Kentucky victory over State.
Morris scored 11 of his team-high 17 points in the final eight minutes. He also blocked two shots in the final minute that enabled UK to win its 10th straight game (the seventh-longest active streak in the country).
UK Coach Tubby Smith linked Morris' slow start to State's defensive quickness and the junior center's early misses from the floor.
"I think he was settling for it," Smith said of the jump shots that Morris missed, "instead of taking it to the basket."
Those misses propelled Kentucky toward its worst shooting performance of the season (36.2 percent).
Then with the game tied at 53 inside the final five minutes, Morris came to life. He scored eight straight points to enable UK to improve to 14-3 overall and 3-0 in the Southeastern Conference.
"He's getting mentally tougher," Smith said. "Tonight he looked a little winded early on. That's what happens when you're not making shots. That can zap you. ...
"We certainly needed all the production he gave us."
After Morris hit a lefty layup in the lane and added two free throws to put the Cats ahead 57-53, State countered with two baskets to tie the score again. With the clock inside the final minute, Morris took a pass from Crawford and scored the go-ahead basket.
Morris kept Kentucky ahead with a defensive play. As Jamont Gordon drove, Morris reached in a got a hand on the ball. A second later, he ripped the ball out of the hands of State's leading scorer (13 points), sending it out of bounds. Whistle.
"It could have gone either way," Morris said. "It could have been a steal or a jump ball or a foul. We definitely got the best thing for us."
The referees called it a tie-up, with the alternate possession arrow favoring Kentucky.
A rueful smile crept across Mississippi State Coach Rick Stansbury's face when asked about the tie-up call.
"Of course," he said." The official called that. It was the correct smile."
The call capped an evening of calls that mostly favored Kentucky, which shot 19 free throws to State's three. The Bulldogs, who fell to 10-6 overall and 1-2 in the SEC, did not shoot a free throw until the 17:05 mark of the second half and didn't take a second until 8:48 remained.
When asked why State had so many fewer free throws, Stansbury said, "Boy, was that a loaded question?
"Kentucky was more aggressive, and we fouled them a lot more. Is that a political answer?"
The loss followed a pattern for State. The Bulldogs also lost nail-biters at Clemson and Tennessee earlier this season.
"I'm proud of the effort," Stansbury said. "It seems like the old song and dance for us."
Morris provided the radical departure. He scored six first-half points (only two in the final 17 minutes).
"We kept him in check as much as you can keep him in check," Stansbury said of State's double-teaming on Morris.
Crawford saw fatigue. "Randolph's been practicing the hardest he's ever practiced," he said, "and playing the hardest. He showed he is one of the best players in the country."
Morris couldn't explain his slow start.
"I have no clue," he said before adding, "You can definitely look forward to me not repeating that in the next game."