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TOPPERS LEAVE CATS SPINNING

Date story published: Friday, November 16, 2001

Kentucky began this season of high expectation rated as high as No. 2 in the country. The Cats will have to settle -- at least temporarily -- for being no better than No. 2 in the Commonwealth.

Western Kentucky, a veteran team eager to return to the glories of yesteryear, beat UK 64-52 last night in the second game of the NABC Classic in Rupp Arena.

In the first game, George Washington rallied past Marshall 69-64 to advance to tonight's championship game.

The UK-WKU game was a season opener drenched in post-season intensity. Western's win was no fluke. Kentucky did not lead in the final 23 minutes. Before that, the Cats never led by more than three points.

The surprise within the surprise? The Cats could not claim that Western's 7-footer, Chris Marcus, won it with monster numbers. Marcus had 13 points and 10 rebounds, most of both coming down the stretch as the Hilltoppers hung on desperately. Each number was less than his season average last year.

Western's quickness and palpable desire won it.

"They outplayed us in every phase of the game," UK Coach Tubby Smith said. "They out-toughed us. They outworked us. They out-shot us. It was really a disappointing effort on our part."

Like a snowball rolling down a snow-covered hill, the listing of shortcomings this night seemingly inspired the UK coach to name more.

"We played selfishly," he said. "We didn't get any loose balls. I was looking for positives. Well, we came out in the second half and shot worse."

Before the game, Western Coach Dennis Felton looked upon the game as a chance to make a statement.

"We're working hard to re-establish ourselves as a national powerhouse," he said. "If we beat them, it is a statement everybody across the country understands. Maybe we're a team that needs to be reckoned with."

It was only Western's second victory over Kentucky. The first? Jim McDaniels led the Hilltoppers to a victory in the 1971 NCAA Tournament.

UK, which will play Marshall and Paintsville native J.R. VanHoose in tonight's consolation game, lost a home opener for only the sixth time since 1930. However, it was the second straight year UK lost its home opener. Penn State crashed the party last season.

Point-guard play hindered Kentucky.

Sophomore Cliff Hawkins started in place of the injured senior J.P. Blevins, who sat on the bench in Lexington's official uniform (khaki slacks and a blue blazer). Blevins is nursing an ankle he sprained in Sunday's exhibition game. Asked if Blevins would play tonight against Marshall, Smith said, "I doubt it."

Hawkins, a work in progress, picked up two quick fouls and went to the bench with 16:58 left in the first half.

"That hurt a lot," said Smith, who criticized the wisdom of Hawkins' second foul: a reach-in against Marcus. "Not a very good play at all," the UK coach said. "Reaching in on a 7-footer? That's the disciplined part. Or lack thereof (in Hawkins)."

Kentucky may have set a school record by playing four point guards in the half. None distinguished himself. UK finished with 20 turnovers and just six assists.

Freshman Adam Chiles came in for Hawkins, thus ending speculation about whether UK would redshirt Chiles this season. Gerald Fitch and Keith Bogans also got a turn at directing the team.

"We just didn't have any flow and cohesiveness on offense," Smith said. "We didn't have any real leadership in attacking and setting things up to get things done. We have a lot of work to do."

Poor shooting by UK's top guns -- Tayshaun Prince and Bogans -- hurt the Cats. The two combined to shoot 7-for-24 (2-for-10 from three-point range).

By contrast, Western got 24 points from its unheralded power-forward combination, David Boyden (15 points) and Todor Pandov.

Boyden, who was 0-for-1 from three-point range as a freshman two years ago, set a tone with two threes in the first four minutes.

"We were trying to help (Marvin) Stone on Marcus," Prince said of leaving Boyden free. "I didn't know he was that type of shooter."

Pandov, a native of Bulgaria who redshirted last season, rescued Western in the second half. When UK closed to within 36-34 early in the second half, he scored seven straight points.

Pandov capped his mini-run by driving to a score over two UK defenders. That typified a night that saw the Hilltoppers repeatedly penetrate UK's man-to-man defense.

"We just couldn't stop the penetration," Smith said, recalling a point he made after Sunday's exhibition game. "I don't know how many layups they had. But it was more layups than I've seen in a long time."

Despite being outplayed much of the night, Kentucky nearly pulled out an improbable victory. Gerald Fitch stole an inbounds, one of the few times UK's press caused a turnover, and hit a layup to reduce the deficit to 58-52 with 2:20 left.

Western called time. "It was our game to lose at that point," Felton said. "I called time to let (the Western players) settle down and regroup. I called time so a steal and a layup didn't lead to momentum."

The only momentum UK takes into tonight's consolation game is the downward spiral kind.

Trial balloon

Kentucky is looking at the NABC Classic as a trial balloon, Director of Athletics Larry Ivy said. If all goes well, Kentucky will consider reviving the UKIT, the school's former holiday tournament.

Kentucky ended the UKIT after 1989 because it had a difficult time bringing in quality teams. Despite the appeal of playing in Rupp Arena, teams from around the country did not want to give up two home games to play in UK's tournament.

UK Coach Tubby Smith supports a revival of the UKIT as a chance to get two home games, Ivy said.

A future UKIT field might have three in-state schools, Ivy said.

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