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CATS COME OUT OF THEIR SHELL

Date story published: Sunday, December 13, 1998

Attention basketball world: Forget the hype. Kentucky will have a huge say in who wins the national championship this season.

Maryland, the early-season subject of reams of newsprint and videotape, came into Rupp Arena last night looking to validate its sizzle as Grade A steak.

Like a bull seeing red, Kentucky perceived insult in its unusual - if not unprecedented - status as an underdog in Rupp Arena. The Cats responded by outshooting, outdefending, outhustling and outplaying the Terps most of the night.

Led by its three senior captains, UK won 103-91.

"We feel it's not often we should be an underdog," UK forward Scott Padgett said. "It was like not getting respect. We felt we had a lot to prove."

To its credit, Maryland took UK's best performance of the season on one of the louder nights in Rupp history and nearly won.

"They have a talented team," UK Coach Tubby Smith said. "Thank goodness we played them here. I can't say enough about the crowd."

No. 5 Kentucky improved to 9-1. No. 2 Maryland, which expected to become No. 1 with a victory here, fell to 10-1.

Stat of the night: Kentucky's three seniors outscored Maryland's three seniors 73-31.

Heshimu Evans led UK in scoring with a career-high 31 points. That surpassed his previous high at UK (twice scoring 22, most recently Tuesday against Indiana). That surpassed his high at Manhattan (28 against Canisius). And it surpassed any point total he could remember from high school or junior high.

"I'm a late bloomer," Evans quipped.

Padgett's 25 points also represented a career high. His 13 rebounds were one shy of a career mark .

The third UK senior, Wayne Turner, scored 17 points. But more important, he simply supplied a superb floor game (seven assists, two turnovers in 35 minutes) and expertly controlled the tempo.

"That bodes well for Wayne," Smith said. "I think he did a great job of controlling the tempo and flow. He knows when to attack and when to pull it out. That's why I think he's one of the best point guards in the country. That's why I wouldn't trade him for any other point guard."

It would be difficult to imagine Kentucky playing better. The Cats:

* Matched a season high with nine three-pointers.

* Continued to play Silas Marner-stingy defense. Maryland, which came into the game shooting 52.2 percent, made only 33 of 78 shots (42.3 percent).

* Continually hit all the correct tempo buttons. UK beat Maryland in transition repeatedly and seldom allowed the torrid Terps' fast break to get to the basket.

Kentucky was especially sharp in the first half. The result was a 54-41 lead at halftime. Maryland opponents had been averaging 55.6 points .

"I think we played our best game of the year by far," Padgett said. "If we keep that up the whole year, then this team can go as far as it wants. If we play with the intensity of tonight, I don't know if anybody in college basketball can beat us."

Kentucky showed from the start that it would not concede the transition game to the Terps. Five seconds after center Obinna Ekezie scored Maryland's first basket, Evans roared downcourt on a one-man fast break. His flying, left-handed dunk five seconds after Ekezie's basket electrified an already charged-up crowd.

Kentucky took control by outscoring Maryland 21-8 in the final six minutes of the first half. Evans scored seven of those points. Padgett had six. And both seniors contributed to the prettiest UK fast break in a good while. Evans dribbled down the middle of the court after grabbing a rebound. Just past halfcourt, he whipped a pass to Padgett on the right side. Padgett flipped a touch pass to freshman Tayshaun Prince near the basket. Prince dunked to give UK its first double-digit lead, 47-37.

UK wasn't finished.

After Ekezie scored with five seconds left to make it 51-41, UK called time.

A fitting punctuation to an excellent first half ensued. With 3.9 seconds left, Padgett inbounded to Turner. Turner got across halfcourt and fired a crosscourt pass to Padgett. Padgett took a dribble and leaned into a 25-footer. It swished.

"We wanted to get the ball to Wayne and let him go," Padgett said. "But I noticed my man went over to help on Wayne. So I yelled for the ball. I was open and had time to square up."

Kentucky extended its lead to 67-50 early in the second half. Prince put back his miss in transition.

Too good to simply concede, Maryland mounted the seemingly inevitable comeback down the stretch. The Terps finally started hitting a few shots outside the lane and steadily chipped away at UK's lead.

Ekezie's three-point play got Maryland within 79-72 with 5:33 left.

Evans responded with the biggest shot of the game: a three-pointer from the right side that eased the tension.

"I can't say enough about Heshimu Evans," Smith said. "He stepped up and hit a big three-pointer when the momentum had changed."

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