Date story published: Sunday, December 21, 1997
Let the record show that Mr. Nice Guy (a.k.a. new Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith) unleashed his famous death stare last night. His eyes bugged out of his head. His jaw tightened. His face frightened.
"A lot of people got the stare," Scott Padgett said of Smith's halftime demeanor. "Got the 'eyeball.' "
So much for peace on earth and all those sweet holiday sentiments.
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Then again, Smith's Scrooge-on-a-bad-day look no doubt brought calm to the Bluegrass. It propelled Kentucky to a deceptively one-sided 74-53 victory over Tulsa.
That final margin masked a halftime deficit for No. 4 Kentucky. After having the dull stare of a dairy cow in the first half, the Cats gained the eye of the tiger in the second. A 17-0 run subdued Tulsa shortly after halftime. Later, another 13-0 spurt gave the game the look of a laugher. Yet there were few chuckles in the UK locker room afterward.
"Coach Smith's talk at halftime definitely played a big role," Padgett said. "We woke up in the second half and played ball like we can."
UK (9-1) had reasons for a less-than-intense performance. The game came at the end of finals week. The Cats hadn't played in a week. Earlier this season, UK traveled more than 11,000 miles in a chase for victories and money.
"You do all you can," Smith said of avoiding an inevitable letdown. "Then you face it. You're going to hit a wall. And you've got to fight through it."
Padgett choked on the words before bravely proposing a possible reason for UK's poor first half.
"I hate to say it, but maybe we didn't respect (Tulsa) like we should any opponent," Padgett said. "The way we came out, it was like we were just going to show up and win. They kicked our butts in the first half. They killed us on the boards."
It wasn't all that bad. But Tulsa, 7-3 and unranked, did lead 29-28 and hold an 18-15 rebounding edge at halftime. UK ended up winning the rebounding battle 33-30 to maintain the claim of outrebounding every opponent this season.
Both coaches cited an adjustment in Kentucky's press for helping break the game open.
"In the first half, we were able to throw over the press to our '4' and '5' men," Tulsa Coach Bill Self said. "In the second half, they did a good job of preventing us from throwing to our '4' and '5' men."
"They were going over the top and cutting up the press," Smith said of the first half. "It didn't look like we were pressing."
It did in the second half.
"Kentucky came out a totally different team in the second half," Self said.
During the 17-0 breakout, UK turned over Tulsa six times. The Golden Hurricane got off only three shots in that decisive six-minute span. Only one reached the rim.
Throughout the second half, Tulsa made only six baskets and put up only 18 shots. UK outscored the Golden Hurricane 46-24 in the second half. The margin was 45-16 when Smith belatedly began clearing his bench with less than four minutes left.
For the second straight game, and for only the third game this season, Kentucky trailed at halftime.
Tulsa's 29-28 lead was no fluke. Besides outrebounding Kentucky, the Golden Hurricane took 11 more shots.
Those numbers practically jumped off the first-half box score. UK built its No. 4 ranking on precisely those two areas.
Despite getting only one basket from its leading scorer, Tulsa did not trail in the final 13 minutes of the half.
Although Kentucky zipped to a 9-4 lead in the first four minutes, Smith must have sensed trouble. He substituted an entire new lineup at the 16:00 mark.
It didn't work. Two minutes later, with the five-point lead (UK's largest of the half) gone, the starters returned.
"I didn't think we were getting much out of the first group," Smith said.
Tulsa led by as much as 23-15 with 7:23 left.
Free throws - until the first half a problem area for Kentucky - kept the Cats close. UK made nine of its first 10 free throws in the half, including four straight that reduced the deficit to 23-21.
Wayne Turner's fast-break reverse layup put UK ahead 30-29 with 19:14 left in the second half. That marked the Cats' first lead since the 13:00 mark of the first half.
UK trailed 33-32 with 16:43 left when Smith changed point guards. His son, Saul Smith, replaced Turner. Coincidentally or not, the Cats immediately went on a 17-0 run.
"He came in with some energy and some enthusiasm," the UK coach said of his son. "That was what I was looking for. Someone to energize us."
The elder Smith apparently did just that at halftime.