Date story published: Wednesday, December 6, 2006
LOUISVILLE -- Survive and advance, as they say in the NCAA Tournament.
That's what Kentucky accomplished in a 79-63 victory over never-say-die Tennessee-Chattanooga last night.
On the plus side, Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley hit clutch three-pointers.
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Alas, Kentucky needed the shots to hold off Chattanooga, which narrowed a 28-point deficit to nine with more than four minutes left.
As UK Coach Tubby Smith saw it, his work in progress, to use popular parlance, got closer to becoming an effective unit.
"We advanced; we got better tonight," he said. "That's all we're trying to do: Get better every night."
A crowd of 11,641 -- the second smallest to ever watch Kentucky play in the Derby City -- saw an unfolding Cat blowout nearly blow up in UK's face. Trailing 61-33 with less than 15 minutes left, Chattanooga used a flurry of three-pointers to get within 71-62 at the 4:13 mark.
Crawford dispersed the gathering gloom with a three-pointer, which was part of a 19-point night. Asked whether the increasing tension motivated his heroics, Crawford smiled and said, "I was unconscious on that shot." He meant he played freely rather let his mind get cluttered with inhibiting thoughts.
After a scoreless trip downcourt for Chattanooga, Bradley hit a clinching three-pointer, part of a career-high 23-point night that made him the official player of the game.
"It means a lot," Bradley said of the award. "Any time you're recognized for an award, and it's positive, it's a blessing."
UK (5-3) got most of its scoring from four players. Bobby Perry and Randolph Morris added 17 each as the Cats unveiled a new starting lineup that featured freshman Derrick Jasper at point guard.
"I thought he did a good job," Smith said of Jasper, whose six assists and 10 rebounds were career highs. "He's got to learn to fight through a little fatigue. Again, turnovers are something we have to clean up with all our guards."
Jasper had four and UK 20, which was only a slight decrease from the 22 at North Carolina last weekend.
The empty seats did not distract Kentucky as the game began. The Cats jumped on Chattanooga immediately and zipped to a 15-8 lead inside the first six minutes.
Morris led the way, with his teammates making an obvious effort to get the ball into their big man. Of UK's first seven possessions, Morris touched the ball four times.
Even though Morris did not score or touch the ball at the offensive end in the final 7:42, the Cats pulled away late to take a 45-30 halftime lead.
Kentucky extended the lead early in the second half. Four straight three-pointers (two by Perry, one by Crawford and one by Bradley) gave UK a 59-33 lead.
Crawford's baseline drive and dunk gave UK its largest lead, 61-33.
But a series of calls began a downward spiral for Kentucky.
Many of the fans who did come to the game got some officiating calls to boo. A sequence of three straight questionable calls started when Jasper received a technical foul for pushing off against Kevin Bridgewaters. The crowd thought Bridgewaters, a native of Columbia, Ky., flopped.
The crowd's disposition turned even more disagreeable when Crawford was called for pushing off on a rebound attempt on Bridgewaters' second free throw.
With the ensuing possession, Chattanooga got a call on Bradley for holding his man away from the ball.
Chattanooga followed the favorable calls with favorable play. Guard Keddric Mays, who led Chattanooga with 25 points, hit back-to-back three-pointers to draw the Mocs within 71-59.
Helping increase the tension, Morris made only one of four free throws.
After Perry weakly missed a post-up shot, Bridgewaters hit a driving shot to draw Chattanooga within 71-62 at the 4:13 mark.
"You have to stay focused," Smith said. "Our kids weren't really concentrating. I don't know what it was all about."
Then the UK coach alluded to the series of calls by saying, "You can't have players questioning whether it's a good call or not."
Smith's advice? "You shouldn't react," he said. "Just play. There's nothing to react to. It's part of the game."
Thanks to the clutch threes by Crawford and Bradley, UK could react to a victory and a step forward.