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CATS HEAL AGAINST HEELS

Date story published: Sunday, December 3, 2000

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Tubby Smith can coach.

Saul Smith can be an inspiring floor general against a top 10 team.

Kentucky can make perimeter shots.

North Carolina can lose at home against an unranked, non-conference opponent reeling from three losses in its first four games and saddled with forgetful, fretful and amazingly fickle fans.

Who would have thunk it? Who expected an unusually vulnerable Kentucky to rise Lazarus-like to beat No. 6 North Carolina 93-76 yesterday?

Probably not the noisy UK fans who fingered panic buttons all over Cat-land after last weekend's home loss to Penn State (Penn State?).

In moving those fans back to their customary joy buzzers, the Cats answered Tubby Smith's challenge for more heart, more hustle and more -- pardon the political incorrectness -- testosterone.

"I thought our guys were awesome in the way they responded," the UK coach said. "They responded with energy and enthusiasm and emotion. That's what we've been trying to get out of these guys instead of trying to be ... (his voice trailed off).

"They all want to play. But they want to win and play in style. And you don't get any points for style. We're a blue-collar team."

Kentucky (2-3) needed to dig deeper. North Carolina came into the game with a near invincibility on its powder-blue home court, the Dean E. Smith Center. The Tar Heels had won 72 of 76 games in the "Dean Dome" against non-conference opponents.

When North Carolina scored the game's first seven points en route to a 21-11 lead and Kentucky's star players flailed away ineffectively, the Cats seemingly faced a moment of truth.

That the Cats, jump-started by their seemingly unflappable freshmen, not only beat North Carolina but toyed with the Tar Heels down the stretch had Tubby Smith euphoric.

"I think the sky's the limit for this team if we keep this type of mental focus," the UK coach said. "As I told Matt (Doherty) and his team, we certainly hope to see them in the Final Four because I think they have that type of potential and that type of talent."

With his team now the one in crisis, Doherty, the first-year Carolina coach, voiced a sentiment far from a Final Four.

"I just want to open up by apologizing," he said at his post-game news conference. "I thought the atmosphere was great. It was a great college basketball game. The fans did their part. We didn't do ours."

Tubby Smith credited freshman Cliff Hawkins for being the key to the first-half turnaround. Hawkins, who scored eight points in the first four games, scored nine of his career-high 11 in the first half. Better still, he knifed into Carolina's zone defense and handed out three assists while committing no turnovers. He finished with five assists.

"He was the key to the first half, to really setting the tone," Tubby Smith said. "He was able to penetrate. That's what I thought broke them down."

Hawkins had plenty of help. He and the other first-year players scored 29 of UK's 38 first-half points. UK's bench outscored North Carolina's reserves 27-4 in that time.

At least one North Carolina fan sensed defeat with Kentucky leading 38-35 at halftime. During a ceremony to retire the jersey of former Tar Heel star Vince Carter, a fan yelled, "Put that thing on, Vince!"

The key to Kentucky's game plan was using speed to combat North Carolina's size. The second half looked like a clinic on how speed trumps size. North Carolina looked like a helpless giant as UK continually zipped to loose balls.

"We really felt we had the advantage speedwise and quicknesswise," Saul Smith said. "We found ourselves beating them off the dribble a couple times -- well, a lot more than the usual. We saw a weakness in that and we tried to exploit that."

It also helped that Tayshaun Prince and Keith Bogans shook off first-half struggles to lead the way. The two scored 24 of their 33 points in the second half. Maybe more importantly, the pair hit five of 12 three-point shots in the final 20 minutes.

A Prince three-pointer gave UK the lead for good at 50-48 with 14:57 left. A Bogans' three increased the lead to double digits at 62-50 with 10:23 left.

The lead grew to 23 points in the final two minutes.

The only drama left was whether UK would administer North Carolina's most lopsided loss to a non-conference opponent in the Dean Dome. The Cats equalled the 17-point defeat the Tar Heels suffered against Temple here in 1988.

Afterward, Bogans credited Tubby Smith's challenge to play tough.

"When a coach questions your toughness, that's when you want to play a lot harder," Bogans said. "You want to dig. You want to scrap. You want to do whatever it takes. The coach is supposed to be your best friend. When he questions your toughness, that really gets down to your heart."

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