Date story published: Saturday, December 23, 2006
Like a waiter bringing a $500 bottle of wine to the table, Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith told his players to savor last night's 82-68 victory over Massachusetts.
"I told the guys, we're going to enjoy this win because it was a good win," Smith said.
Unusually good three-point shooting and what's becoming routinely excellent defense made for an intoxicating victory. The Cats made a season-high 58.8 percent of their shots (a season's best 63.6 percent from three-point range) and, perhaps, not coincidentally, equaled a season high with 20 assists.
Smith credited center Randolph Morris, one of three UK players with 14 points, for setting the tone by posting up strong for baskets early.
"We really moved the ball better," Smith said. "We're trying to limit the things we're doing. You can see better spacing, better movement."
Kentucky, which improved to 9-3, impressed UMass Coach Travis Ford, the former UK point guard.
"When they are shooting the ball like that, and with the consistency of the defense and the way Coach Smith teaches defense, there are not five better teams in the country," Ford said.
Kentucky limited UMass to a season-low 37.3 percent shooting. The Minutemen came into the game as the Atlantic 10 Conference's best shooting team (49.4 percent). Center Rashaun Freeman, a two-time all-conference player, scored seven points, the first time he's failed to reach double figures this season.
In the first 13 minutes of the second half, UMass had four baskets. The Minutemen fell to 9-3.
The addition of a smoother offensive flow with solid defense put thoughts of championships, not sugar plums, dancing in the players' heads.
"I think we can get better and better," said Joe Crawford, another of the Cats with 14 points. "By mid-January, we can be a championship-caliber team, if we aren't already."
Morris scored two of UK's first three baskets. But two other early baskets, by slumping Bobby Perry, might have sent a bigger signal. Twice inside the first four minutes, Perry drove assertively even though guarded by Stephane Lasme, the Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year last season and a man averaging 4.2 blocks per game this season.
"One of the most athletic guys I've played against throughout the season," said Perry, who scored on both occasions. "That's what you have to do: take it right to him, and not back down. ... That aggressiveness carried over."
A 17-1 run late in the first half put the hammer down on UMass. In that span, the Cats made six of nine shots and all three attempts from beyond the arc.
"We were just ready to hit shots," said Crawford, who made two of the treys. "We were patient and just ready to take the shot before the ball came. Sometimes we force things. In Louisville, I kind of forced things."
How hot was UK? Moments after UMass closed within 12 points, Sheray Thomas made his first three-pointer of the season. The Minutemen fell behind by as much as 22 and got no closer than 12 down the stretch.
Meanwhile, outside of senior guard James Life (24 points), UMass struggled to score.
Smith noted how the Cats followed the game plan in containing Freeman.
"We took away his move to the middle," the UK coach said. "He likes to go over his right shoulder for his jump hook. The kids are starting to understand how to trap.
"You can see them growing and getting better. The progress is there. You can see it going in the right direction."
As Smith suggested, the Cats planned to enjoy this victory.
"It's going to be a great Christmas now," said Ramel Bradley, the third UK player with 14 points. "We're playing well. I'm going to the best city in the world (New York City). It doesn't get any better than this."