Date story published: Tuesday, November 21, 2006
LAHAINA, Hawaii -- Kentucky's 87-81 victory over DePaul here last night mocked Hawaii's famously carefree philosophy of hang loose.
This first-rounder in the EA Sports Maui Invitational was a gritty gut-check in the land of dreamy Polynesian paralysis.
Kentucky won because center Randolph Morris was a tower of strength around the basket inside. He scored 20 points in a predictable performance against a DePaul team that Coach Jerry Wainwright had described as "a donut": a hole in the middle.
Although UK scored the game's first 10 points and established 12-point leads inside the first five minutes, DePaul used its perimeter players, particularly Wilson Chandler and Sammy Mejia, to hang loose and, more importantly, hang close.
So blue-collar contributions like taking charges and rebound put-backs decided a game that had one team (DePaul) recover from an early haymaker and the other (Kentucky) shrug off the slow, debilitating loss of a big lead.
"I can't say enough about our kids," UK Coach Tubby Smith said. "They kept their composure after losing the lead. They made some clutch stops. Down the stretch, we made a couple of bad decisions. But we overcame that."
Wainwright, whose team had lost at Bradley and Northwestern before coming to Hawaii, also left the Lahaina Civic Center proud.
"They showed terrific togetherness," he said. "In the locker room, we asked ourselves, where was this? So we're making a lot of progress."
Three straight UK turnovers inside the final two minutes turned a comfortable 11-point lead into a nervous 82-77 margin with 1:22 left.
UK (3-0) could begin breathing easy when Mejia was called for a charge against Ramel Bradley. Wainwright, who more than once questioned calls, turned his back to the court to seemingly lodge another protest.
Wainwright deflected media questions about the call with humor.
"I've spent my whole life looking for answers," he said. "I can't get those at home from my wife. I doubt I'll get them from a referee."
Kentucky will play the winner of last night's late game between UCLA and Chaminade in tonight's second round.
DePaul fell to 1-3 despite making 53.3 percent of its shots. The Blue Demons had averaged 56 points and shot 43.6 percent in their first three games.
"They were very creative in getting one-on-ones (one defender on one scorer)," Smith said. "We had a tough time defending them one on one."
Hot shooting kept the Cats ahead throughout the first half. UK made eight of its first 11 shots to zip to a 10-point lead three minutes into the game.
A long three-pointer by Bradley on Kentucky's first possession got the offensive display started. Bobby Perry, who had been asked to do more, hit a three-pointer and confidently swished a catch-and-shoot jumper.
Back-to-back post-ups by Morris gave Kentucky 12-point leads inside the first five minutes.
"When the opportunity presented itself, I seized those opportunities," Morris said. "I wasn't dominant. That dominance came within the flow of the offense."
DePaul settled down and inched back into the game. Three straight baskets by Draelon Burns enabled the Blue Demons to close within 18-14, forcing a Kentucky timeout at the 13:24 mark.
DePaul took its first lead with 15:40 left when Marcus Heard made two free throws.
Two free throws by Morris put the Cats ahead for good at 51-50 with 14:34 left.
Morris scored nine more points in the final 3:14 to seal the victory.
"We always want to go inside because Randolph is an excellent scorer inside," Smith said. "I thought we'd have a size advantage tonight and we wanted to take advantage of it. When we did that, we were successful. When we didn't do that, we had problems."