Date story published: Wednesday, December 24, 1997
Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith wanted a fast start. He happily settled for a faster break from the gate.
UK, which trailed at halftime in its previous two games, did not wait until the second half to take charge. The Cats assumed command late in the first half and steadily pulled away to a relatively efficient 75-52 victory over outmanned American University.
"When you're playing a good team, you're not going to come out and blow people away," Smith said. "I thought we started pretty well."
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American, a 30-point underdog, played Kentucky evenly through the first 15 minutes. The Eagles played sound defense and patient offense.
"They came in with a nice game plan," said swingman Allen Edwards, who led UK with a season-high 16 points (one shy of his career high). "It took us some time to get past them."
Good defense enabled UK to take control by scoring the last 10 points of the half. With the Cats playing a small lineup that featured Scott Padgett at center, American did not get off a shot in the final four minutes. In that time, the Eagles turned over the ball five straight possessions.
"They were much quicker than we were," Smith said of the decision to go small. "They were spreading us out. We were able to pick up the tempo a little. It can take awhile to get a team to play at your tempo. They wanted to cut the game in half and slow us down. But we were able to get in a flow."
Kentucky converted four of the five American turnovers into points. After Wayne Turner's baseline jumper gave UK a 27-25 lead with 4:10 left, the Cats expanded the cushion by:
* Saul Smith deflecting a pass, running down the ball and getting fouled as he lifted for a layup. His two free throws made it 29-25.
* Edwards blocking a pass, running down the ball and racing to a fast-break, two-hand dunk. That made it 31-25.
* Cameron Mills keeping good defensive position to get a frustrated Nathan Smith to push off. The offensive foul gave UK the ball, and Edwards' tip-in made it 33-25.
* Trapping at halfcourt , which forced American's Ossie Jones to go over and back at the center line. After a 20-second timeout to set up a play, the Cats executed perfectly. Smith dribbled the clock inside 10 seconds, then passed to Padgett, who found Edwards cutting down the baseline for a swinging-on-the-rim dunk with a second left.
"Kentucky is the most effective team in the country at taking turnovers and converting them into points," said Art Perry, American's first-year coach. "That was our demise."
Until the final four minutes of the first half, American hung surprisingly close to the Cats. Maybe most shocking was how the visitors hung onto the ball.
American came into the game with almost twice as many turnovers (162) as assists (86). The Eagles averaged 20.3 turnovers.
Yet American had only one turnover in the game's first 13 minutes. The second, with seven minutes left in the first half, rang no alarm bells. David Small got called for an illegal screen.
But the Eagles committed 15 turnovers thereafter.
As with the slow-start, fast-finish victory over Tulsa on Saturday, Smith credited an adjustment in UK's press. "We need to make the adjustment sooner," he said.
This time, the adjustment involved easing off the full-court traps. American found the man left open by the trap early. Later, the Eagles kept looking for the open man that wasn't there, Perry said.
"When they didn't trap right away, you have to bring it up one on one," Perry said. "We didn't encourage the trap and then hit the open man."
American's top scorer, guard Nathan Smith, kept the Eagles competitive for a half. His 11 first-half points included three pop-up three-pointers. "It looked like he was just throwing it up there to me," Edwards said. "And it went in."
Smith also had a nifty fastbreak reverse layup that left Cameron Mills reeling helplessly. He finished with 16 (four less than his average) and didn't score in the second half until the 9:56 mark.
"I kept shooting the ball the same way," said Smith, who made four of his first five shots and only two of his last eight. "They didn't go in."
American, which made 37.3 percent of its shots, became the third straight UK opponent (and seventh in the last eight games) to shoot less than 40 percent.
"One thing that's been consistent all year long has been our defense," Tubby Smith said. "I was happy to see the guys focused and not looking past American."