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WILDCATS CLEAR FIRST HURDLE

Date story published: Saturday, March 10, 2001

NASHVILLE -- Kentucky builds a sizable lead. Opponent stages second-half rally. Kentucky steadies itself and pulls out victory.

Kentucky's debut in the Southeastern Conference Tournament yesterday followed this season's signature storyline.

But UK didn't mind that its 78-65 victory over South Carolina had a familiar look. The Cats were happy not to copy what happened to them in last year's SEC Tournament.

"That was a big factor," point guard Saul Smith said of Arkansas' stunning 86-72 second-round knockout of Kentucky in last year's conference tournament.

Last March, Arkansas zoomed to a 30-12 lead en route to matching the most lopsided victory over Kentucky in SEC Tournament history.

When asked if UK ever led against Arkansas, Tayshaun Prince said, "Maybe 2-0. I'll give us 2-0. And I don't even think it was that."

It wasn't. Arkansas led wire-to-wire.

Against South Carolina, Kentucky went for the early knockout.

"We came out and tried to put them away early," said freshman center Jason Parker, who scored 14 points and grabbed six rebounds.

UK (20-9) hit its first four shots and six of its first eight. That propelled the Cats to a 21-8 lead seven minutes into the game. Keith Bogans, who led all scorers with 23 points, hit a trio of three-pointers early.

"They came out on fire," South Carolina Coach Eddie Fogler said.

South Carolina (15-14) slowed Kentucky by switching to a zone defense. UK made only eight of its final 23 shots of the first half as South Carolina closed within 34-25 at halftime.

Kentucky seemingly delivered the knockout blow early in the second half. Already leading by 10 points, UK reeled off 13 straight points to go ahead 55-32 with 13:30 left.

Parker led the charge. He scored eight points in the run, including arguably his most memorable play of the season. He cut into the passing lane and stole the ball near mid-court. Off he charged downcourt, hitting a layup while being fouled by South Carolina center Tony Kitchings.

While his open-court play might have caught UK fans by surprise, Parker's other scoring came from his low-post power game.

"I don't think anybody in the SEC can stop me unless they double me," Parker said.

There didn't appear to be any stopping Kentucky. The Cats twice built their lead to 24 points, the second time with 8:31 left.

That's when South Carolina faced its moment to soul-search. Kentucky's 94-61 victory in Columbia last month left Fogler wondering about his team's lack of competitive spirit.

Upon reflection, Fogler put a different spin on his team's worst defeat of the season. "I don't think we quit," he said. "We were shellshocked."

As UK used its loss to Arkansas last month as motivation, South Carolina got resolve from that embarrassment.

"I didn't want to let what happened in Columbia happen again," South Carolina point guard Aaron Lucas said. "We had a lot of heart and pride. We weren't going to give up."

It helped that Kentucky got a little happy. It helped that Kentucky missed five straight free throws down the stretch.

South Carolina closed within 13 points four times. The first and most dangerous time came when freshman Rolando Howell, who led the Gamecocks with 20 points, made two free throws with 4:31 left.

"It's kind of hard when you're up 20 against South Carolina to keep your focus," Parker said. "It's not hard when a timeout is called and you've got Coach (Tubby) Smith in your face."

Kentucky dodged a bullet after Howell's free throws reduced the lead to 69-56. Jamel Bradley, who's third on South Carolina's career list for three-point baskets, found himself wide open on the right side.

Bradley missed, thus saving UK from a further tightening of the screws.

Fogler found more illusion than serious trouble for Kentucky in South Carolina's rally.

"Today they had a few minutes where they didn't play well," the South Carolina coach said. "That made us feel we had a chance."

Although Kentucky did not crush his team's will this time, Fogler saw the Cats as a force this month.

"Kentucky is a lot, lot better team than early in the year or at mid-year," he said. "I think they're peaking at the right time."

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