Date story published: Sunday, January 7, 2007
OXFORD, Miss. -- On Friday, Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith asked for more assertive play from guard Joe Crawford. Last night, he got it.
Crawford equaled career highs in three statistical categories, including a game-high 23 points, to lead UK to a 68-58 victory at Mississippi last night. How well did that fulfill Smith's request?
"Very extremely close," UK center Randolph Morris said.
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Crawford thrust himself into the game immediately by scoring eight of UK's first 12 points.
"I was going for 20 in the first half," he said. "But I didn't get enough foul calls."
In the second half, Crawford poured in 15 more points to help hand a scrappy Ole Miss team its first home loss of the season.
Teammate and best buddy Ramel Bradley, who contributed two clutch three-pointers down the stretch, noted the exquisite timing of Crawford's chest-thumping performance. He didn't necessarily mean how it came a day after Smith chastised Crawford for "avoiding contact." Bradley meant how Crawford's starburst came on opening night in the Southeastern Conference.
"Joe finally arrived," Bradley said, "and I was happy about that."
Kentucky, which extended its winning streak to eight games and improved its overall record to 12-3, needed Crawford. Ole Miss blanketed Morris in a zone and held UK's leading scorer to one shot in the second half.
The Rebels (11-4) had to contain Morris. UK scored its final 12 baskets of the first half from the paint, then extended the streak to 14 with its first two goals of the second half.
Crawford alleviated the pressure of having to score inside by hitting back-to-back three-pointers early in the second half, each breaking a tie.
His signature moment came with Kentucky leading 48-45. After an Ole Miss turnover, Crawford took off down the center of the court on a fast break. He didn't stop until he got to the basket and scored while being fouled by the Rebels' Bam Doyne. The three-point play put UK ahead 51-45 and seemed to say something about Crawford's willingness to absorb contact. Apparently, looks were deceiving.
"I wasn't looking to score," Crawford said with a smile. "I just wanted to push it and find one of my teammates. They didn't guard me."
Later in the half, Crawford erased the last Ole Miss lead by flashing to the basket and muscling in a layup that tied it at 53 with 9:26 left.
After freshman Jodie Meeks swished a three-pointer to put the Cats ahead for good, Crawford padded the lead by pulling up and hitting a mid-range jumper.
"It feels good to play like that," Crawford said. "I looked for my mid-range shot. That's what I focused on."
The performance validated Crawford's odd contention that the left wrist he sprained against Houston on Wednesday would serve as a shooting aid.
"It helps me keep my off hand off the ball and follow through," said Crawford, who equaled career highs with eight baskets (in 10 shots) and four three-pointers.
Crawford also equaled a season low of one turnover in a career-high 37 minutes.
"Those stats speak for themselves," Morris said when asked about Crawford's play. "Eight-for-10 from the field is pretty self-explanatory."
A bit less obvious was how UK needed Crawford (or someone) to help Morris, who expressed his appreciation.
"Once that pressure is taken away, I can focus more on rebounding and defense," said Morris, who contributed his fifth double-double in the last seven games (14 points and 10 rebounds), plus equaled a career-high three steals. "I put all my effort on that and limiting what Dwayne Curtis got."
Curtis, the Rebels' primary inside scorer, scored 11 points in the first half, but made only one second-half basket to finish with 13 points.
Ole Miss made two shots in the game's final 12 minutes.
"Our best defensive effort of the year," Smith said of UK's limiting Ole Miss to 38.6 percent shooting. "That's what won the game."
Crawford took no credit for that part of the victory.
"I was tired," he said with a laugh. "I think my teammates really stepped up."