Date story published: Monday, February 9, 1998
PHILADELPHIA - In a made-for-television game that might have made some CBS viewers long for those upcoming snowboarding runs from the Nagano Olympics, Kentucky beat Villanova 79-63 yesterday.
On the bright side, if further confirmation were needed for Coach Tubby Smith's opinion that this team pales next to recent star-studded UK ensembles, this game better served the purpose. At least the Cats were much more frisky in Philly than in lifeless performances the last few weeks.
So despite some sloppy ballhandling (19 turnovers) and potentially ominous free-throw shooting (15-for-29), Kentucky looked beautiful to Smith.
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"Aw, this is by far our best performance from top to bottom in the last four or five games," the UK coach said with a relieved expression on his face.
Quickness made the difference. Think back to Kentucky's pounding of ponderous Missouri in the Maui Invitational. Unlike recent games against LSU, Florida, Alabama and Arkansas, the Cats were the quicker team. No. 8 UK (21-3) outran its mistakes against Villanova. UK outquicked Villanova's strength, its big but slow front line. UK pressed effectively against a slower opponent.
"A big key," Smith said of UK's quickness advantage. "We were able to keep the ball out of their post people's hands. We used our quickness inside. And we did a good job pressuring the ball and not giving them many looks inside."
Villanova, at No. 89 in the latest Sagarin Ratings behind every Southeastern Conference team but Alabama and LSU, committed 19 turnovers. That equaled the most by a UK opponent since Ohio on Dec. 30.
"We pressed about as well as we can press," Smith said.
Villanova Coach Steve Lappas saw quickness as the reason UK won the rebounding battle for the first time in four games, 53-33. Villanova fell to 9-12.
"Those guys were like jumping jacks," he said. "We'd get one jump and they'd get three. They were third in the country in rebounding and we didn't change that status. They just hammered us."
An injury to Scott Padgett accentuated Kentucky's quickness advantage. Padgett played only three minutes because of a sore back.
That opened up the power forward spot for Heshimu Evans, who scored 17 points (or two more than he had in the previous four games). He also grabbed nine rebounds in what passed for a happy homecoming.
"It felt good to come back and see my family and friends and AAU coaches," said Evans, who grew up about 100 miles away in the Bronx.
Evans denied that not being recruited by any Big East school inspired him to play well. "Not really," he said calmly. "I was happy to come north to play. Every game you play is important."
Lappas admitted he welcomed Padgett's exit with 17:33 left in the first half. Then he confessed he had been wrong.
"I was hoping they'd play him as the four-man," Lappas said of Evans. "It gave us a better matchup, we thought."
It pitted Evans, at 6-foot-6 (3 inches shorter than Padgett), against either 6-7 T.J. Caouette or 6-6 Zeffy Penn.
"If you told me they would play Evans as their four-man a lot, I'd be happy," Lappas said. "But that's not the way it turned out."
Improved passing helped Kentucky take control. The Cats had 20 assists, their most since the Jan. 13 South Carolina game, and surpassed the 10 assists they had at LSU on Wednesday with 4:12 left in the first half.
Improvisation - not quite as memorable as Nazr Mohammed's buzzer-beater at Vanderbilt - continued to help the savvy Cats. This time Jeff Sheppard saved a botched final play of the first half with a three-pointer.
With an 11-point first-half lead down to 37-32, Kentucky called a timeout with 16 seconds left to draw a final play. When Villanova took away an inbounds pass to Saul Smith, and then backtipped the ball from Wayne Turner, Sheppard found himself with the ball about 25 feet from the basket.
"Just what we wanted," he joked.
But Sheppard swished a three-pointer to allow UK to charge into the locker room ahead 40-32.
"When you get that type of momentum going into halftime, it energizes the team," Smith said. "It gave us a big lift."
UK limited Villanova to 31.4-percent shooting in the second half (11-for-35). For more than 10 minutes (from 16:50 to 6:16), Villanova made only one of 12 shots.
Helped by Evans' first three-pointer since Jan. 17, UK expanded its lead to as many as 18 points.
Kentucky needed the cushion because poor free-throw shooting and turnovers enabled Villanova to reduce the lead to 10 with more than four minutes left. In one stretch, the Cats missed six straight free throws.
"We seem to fix one area and something else breaks down," Smith said. "You've got to shoot better than 52 percent. That's something we've got to go back and work on."
But at least this game proved corrections can be made.