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CATS CAN'T CLOSE DEAL

Date story published: Sunday, December 17, 2000

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo suggested that both teams won here yesterday.

"I guess Kentucky won the battle and we won the score," he said. "That's about the way I assess the game."

Kind words. Fitting sentiment. But for a Kentucky team all too familiar with close-but-no-cigar storylines this season, its lesser number on the scoreboard burned too brightly to be ignored.

"We're right there," guard Keith Bogans said after UK lost 46-45. "One point, two points. It comes down to one stop here. A turnover over there. Little things. Till we learn to fix that, it's going to be a long season. But we're getting better each game. I thought we played well today."

The Cats did that. Despite facing a No. 2-ranked Michigan State team seeking to extend the nation's longest home-court winning streak to 35 games, Kentucky more than held its own.

UK, its deceptive 3-5 record masking five losses by a total of 14 points, achieved much of its pre-game objectives. The Cats controlled the tempo, defended as tenaciously as George W. Bush's lawyers and, maybe most significantly, answered Coach Tubby Smith's call for toughness.

Kentucky stood toe to toe with a largely veteran Michigan State team that had won its last 34 home games by an average of 22.8 points.

This tight, riveting game -- "a tough, hard-nosed Big Ten game," Izzo said -- came down to making plays in the clutch. Both teams made them, but State made one more.

"I don't think there's any doubt in anybody's mind that in the end our seniors ... were the difference in the game," Izzo said.

Seniors Charlie Bell and Andre Hutson collaborated on the winning basket. It wasn't easy.

UK three times denied Bell, State's leading scorer, the chance to contribute to the decisive baskets. First UK took away State's plan for Bell to lob to super sophomore Jason Richardson. Then Saul Smith stripped the ball away as Bell jockeyed for an improvisational shot at the top of the key.

Bell, who struggled through a 1-for-11 shooting performance, retrieved the loose ball and rose for a 15-footer. This time Marvin Stone came out and blotted out Bell's view of the basket.

"At winning time, you have to grit your teeth," said Bell, who was caught in mid-air suddenly without much time to think. "You've only got a second. Or less than a second depending on how much hang time you got."

Bell had just enough to see Hutson cutting down the lane. He flicked a pass under Stone's arm. Hutson, who missed the game-tying shot in the final seconds of UK's 60-58 victory over the Spartans last season, laid in the winner with 26.4 seconds left.

"It was a dagger to my heart," Saul Smith said.

Kentucky plotted a response during a timeout with 22.3 seconds left. The plan was for Tayshaun Prince to take the shot. State took him out of the play, leaving Bogans to use his considerable improvisational skills. Bogans got the angle on Bell, State's best perimeter defender. But power forward Aloysius Anagonye arrived on a double-team.

With time at a premium, Bogans tried his patented contorted leaner. It missed badly. "I thought he got hit," Tubby Smith said.

Bogans thought the same thing. "I felt they smacked my hand and bumped me a little bit," UK's leading scorer said. "But we are at their home gym. The referees are not going to let no foul decide a game like that."

The first half looked decisive. State had averaged 92.1 points per game, the fourth highest total nationally. Mixing man-to-man and a 2-3 zone defense, Kentucky held the Spartans to 18 first-half points. None came in the final 9:46, which left State well short of its previous low-scoring half this season: 38 points.

"We did what we wanted to do, especially in the first half," Tubby Smith said.

State missed its first six shots, nine of its first 12 and finished the half shooting 6-for-28.

"We didn't look in sync offensively," Izzo said. "Maybe because they changed up (defenses) so much. Maybe because Charlie had to play so many minutes. And maybe they're pretty good."

That changed dramatically when State scored the first 13 points of the second half. Bell's only basket, a three-pointer, started the run. On the next possession, he lobbed a pass that Richardson dunked. UK's 27-18 halftime lead began evaporating quickly and "The Izzone," the student sections ringing the court, began ringing ears.

With State ahead 31-27, the cue for Kentucky to roll over seemed imminent.

"Not only was that a run, but I thought it was an exciting run," Izzo said. "It was a run you hope to put a team away with. But we didn't do that."

Bogans, who led UK with 15 points, steadied the situation with a three-pointer.

Two straight three-point plays by Prince erased State's largest lead, 44-39, and put Kentucky ahead 45-44 with 2:56 left.

This fiercely competitive game saw one more basket: Hutson's winner.

"We didn't get the proper rotation from the weak side," Tubby Smith of Hutson's layup.

Still, the UK coach sounded an encouraging note. "Our time will come," he said.

Izzo agreed. "That team will be knocking on somebody's door this year," the State coach said. "Mark my words on that."

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