Date story published: Saturday, March 17, 2007
CHICAGO -- For Kentucky fans who wondered the last two seasons what the often hibernating Randolph Morris might look like when fully engaged, he continued to give a roaring answer last night.
Morris' third straight double-double led UK to a 67-58 victory over Villanova in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. He finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds to bring his totals in the last three games to 65 points and 37 boards.
"It's always an emphasis to get me started because obviously Coach (Tubby Smith) recognizes I'm a key to a lot of what we do offensively and defensively," said Morris, whose immodesty sounded grounded in reality. "The team really plays off of what I bring to the table."
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The Cats (22-11) avoided the program's first opening-round defeat since 1987. Their reward: a second-round date on Sunday with powerful Kansas, the No. 1 seed in the West Region. Earlier last night, Kansas beat Niagara 107-67 to snap a two-year losing streak in first-round games. The margin of victory was the Jayhawks' biggest in the NCAA Tournament since a 110-52 first-round win over Prairie View A&M in 1998.
On Thursday, Smith all but guaranteed that Morris would dominate Villanova. The UK coach noted his big man's stellar play and said, "It will continue."
How could Smith be so sure with a player noted for his lapses into seeming indifference.
"His demeanor," the UK coach said. "His focus. His being serious-minded in practice. ... Randolph has taken it upon himself to be the focal point and accept that responsibility to be a leader."
Kentucky committed a blunder before the game started. Associate Coach David Hobbs checked the wrong Perry as a starter. Despite Smith's lengthy protestations, freshman Dwight Perry started rather than his cousin (and regular starter) Bobby Perry. Dwight, whose cameo roles in three games this season did not add up to a minute in UK's official statistics, purposefully committed a foul three seconds into the game. That stopped play and allowed Bobby to enter.
"The wrong name was in the scorebook," NCAA Selection Committee member Tom O'Connor said in a statement released to the media. "If it were changed, it would have been a technical foul. (Kentucky) chose to deal with it this way."
Smith noted the possible confusion with three Perrys (Perry Stevenson the third) and said, "I guess a rule is a rule is a rule. Like rules never are adapted."
Kentucky dealt successfully with Villanova thanks to Morris and tight defense. Villanova (22-11) made a season-low 32.7 percent of its shots. Guard Scottie Reynolds burned UK with 14 first-half points. But he made only one of nine second-half shots and finished with 23.
"We started switching a lot," Smith said of the second-half adjustment on Reynolds. "I thought Jodie Meeks did a good job (on him). He's really learned to play defense the right way.
"But defense is always a team effort. Any time he penetrated, we did a good job collapsing on him, kind of corralling him."
Neither team led by more than five points in a first half that saw Kentucky take a 30-28 lead at intermission.
As expected, Reynolds and Curtis Sumpter proved difficult for UK to contain. The pair combined for 21 of Villanova's first-half points. Reynolds made three of four three-point shots and scored 14 points. Sumpter added seven.
Also as expected, Morris proved difficult for Villanova to handle around the basket. He scored 10 first-half points. That helped UK offset a poor first half for Joe Crawford, who missed his first six shots and made one of seven attempts.
With Morris everywhere, Kentucky took a 44-37 lead nine minutes into the second half.
Morris, who achieved a double-double with 15 minutes left, drew increasing defensive attention. He countered by throwing a pass to a cutting Perry (Bobby, not Dwight) that gave UK its seven-point lead.
Meanwhile, Reynolds did not score another basket until 2:13 remained in the game.
With Reynolds silent except for free throws, Kentucky built its lead to 49-39 with 8:26 left. Morris -- who else? -- made two free throws to set the game's first double-digit margin.
Despite his active play, Morris had picked up only one foul. That quickly changed as he got his second and third fouls within 65 seconds. With UK ahead 50-44 and 7:04 remaining, Smith kept Morris in the game.
Barely two minutes later, Morris picked up his fourth foul, this time helping on a Reynolds drive. He went to the bench with 4:52 left and UK clinging to a 54-50 lead.
Villanova got within five, 61-56, inside the final two minutes. But Kentucky, which squandered leads in the clutch several times this season, dodged defeat this time when Villanova's Mike Nardi, a 37.3-percent three-point shooter this season, missed two open attempts from beyond the arc.