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WILDCATS' HALF-COURT DEFENSE HELPS UK TO 69-57 WIN OVER GAMECOCKS

Date story published: Sunday, March 1, 1998

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Hey, wasn't this supposed to be one of those Nykesha Sales moments extended over 40 minutes?

Like the injured women's player made famous by a scripted basket recently, Kentucky and South Carolina had a chance yesterday to play what Gamecocks' Coach Eddie Fogler called "one of those fun ones."

Their post-season positions were set. There seemed no need to get rudely competitive.

Forgetaboutit.

Kentucky and South Carolina, the 1998 and 1997 Southeastern Conference regular-season champions, staged a chair-banging, finger-pointing, dunk-you-very-much competition.

Which Kentucky won 69-57.

With the game barely a minute old, an incidental elbow opened a cut over "I was going back out there even if I had to play with one eye," he said.

Later, UK dinged Watson's left eye while knocking him to the court.

"When they hit me on the other side, I thought maybe they were trying to take both eyes out," he said.

Ironically, a tactic associated with relatively passive play, a zone defense, keyed this historic UK victory. The Cats, 26-4 overall and 14-2 in the SEC, became only the second UK team in 36 years to go unbeaten on the road in the league.

The zone helped contain penetration by South Carolina's all-league side to side, from basket to the top of the key to challenge nearly all perimeter shooters.

of our best efforts all year long. The defense was tremendous in contesting shots and challenging shots and rebounding the ball."

South Carolina made only four of 24 three-point shots and shot 38.5 percent (the Gamecocks' worst accuracy since Jan. 3).

"Their zone bothered us," Fogler said. "That's all we worked on for two days. But it's hard to simulate in practice....

"I like us against a zone. But that's a big zone, an active zone."

South Carolina, which saw its 22-game homecourt winning streak snapped, fell to 21-6 overall and 11-5 in the SEC.

"The key to our zone is you've got to move on the pass," UK forward Scott Padgett said. "When the ball's in the air, you've got to be moving."

The Cats never trailed in making amends for South Carolina's victory on Kentucky's Senior Day last year. Again credit the zone. Last season South Carolina swept UK as the Cats played former coach Rick Pitino's signature pressing and aggressive man-to-man defenses.

By contrast, Kentucky concentrated on protecting the basket in the half-court more in sweeping the Gamecocks this season.

"Previous Kentucky teams really extended their defense more," Smith said. "We're more of a contain defense. South Carolina's most effective weapon is to beat you off the dribble and create offensive opportunities."

Shooting guard Jeff Sheppard made sure Kentucky got off to a good start offensively. He scored 16 of his 24 points in the first half. He nailed four of his career-high six three-pointers in the first half.

"Sheppard answered every time in the first half," Fogler said. "That took a lot out of us."

Sheppard credited screens set by his teammates for a second straight big offensive game. He scored a career-high 25 at Auburn three days earlier.

Sheppard's most memorable shot came with 9:44 left in the first half. With the shot clock down to two seconds, he took an inbounds pass and swished a NBA-length three-pointer.

Kentucky led by as much as 23-13 in the first half, by as much as 54-40 with 8:33 left.

But South Carolina wasn't going to lie down this day. Led by McKie, who needed 17 shots to score 21 points and become the Gamecocks' only double-digit scorer, the hosts reduced Kentucky's lead to 56-51 with 4:02 left.

Padgett rode to the rescue. Left free when his man, Ryan Stack, went for a steal, Padgett hit a 15-footer. Later, his only three-point basket staked UK to a 61-51 lead with two minutes left.

"We answered their call," UK backup point guard Saul Smith said. "They were going in and making big plays. We had to step up and make bigger plays."

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