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CATS ZAP VALPO IN OPENER

Date story published: Friday, March 15, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- Despite doubting prognosticators (and maybe because of them), Kentucky advanced in the NCAA Tournament yesterday.

UK's mode of transportation to round two? The same roller coaster that took the Cats on a stomach-churning trip through the regular season.

The 83-68 first-round victory over Valparaiso featured a jolting rise to seemingly the upper limits of UK's ability. Why, slump-ridden Keith Bogans, only 2-for-24 from three-point range in the last six games, dropped four treys on Valpo.

"It's really been needed," Bogans said of regaining his role as Tonto to teammate Tayshaun Prince's Lone Ranger. "For the majority of the season, I haven't been there. But that's in the past."

Bogans, who finished with 21 points (his highest total since scoring 23 at Notre Dame on Jan. 19), and stout team defense propelled Kentucky to a 20-point first-half lead.

"We played about as well as we've played in a long time," UK Coach Tubby Smith said.

Kentucky's lead reached its zenith at 70-49 with less than six minutes left. Then came the dip: Four turnovers and 1-for-6 free-throw shooting. Suddenly, with more than two minutes left, Valpo narrowed the lead to 10. And the Crusaders, who made 14 treys in their last game, got off two shots to get closer.

"We let up a little," reserve forward Erik Daniels said. "We thought the game was over a little bit."

Kentucky's history of up-and-down kept Valpo believing. The plan: reduce the 41-23 halftime deficit to 10 by the 10-minute mark, to four with four minutes left.

"We missed that goal," Valpo Coach Homer Drew said. "We didn't get it to 10 until (two minutes remained). It was too late. We always knew if we could get a run, it would put a lot of pressure on them. But you have to credit Kentucky."

The Cats made 10 straight free throws in the final 1:27 to clinch perhaps the sweetest first-round victory in Kentucky's storied hoops history. UK (21-9) will play Tulsa in Saturday's second round. Tulsa, the 12th seed, upset Marquette 71-69 yesterday.

The many predictions of Valpo springing the first-round upset here fueled Kentucky.

"That kind of hurt my feelings a little bit," Bogans said. "We are Kentucky."

Thanks in large part to Bogans, the Cats restored some of the luster that normally is synonymous with Kentucky basketball.

Bogans, who made only 25.3 percent of his three-pointers against Southeastern Conference teams this season, missed his first attempt here. The shot's in-and-out action suggested yet another frustrating game ahead.

"I just said to myself that shot's done, get back on defense," Bogans said. "I didn't even think about it. The next couple possessions, I attacked the basket."

UK exploited its advantage inside. The Cats did not score from outside 10 feet until Bogans hit his first three with 8:10 left in the half.

His second gave Kentucky its largest first-half lead, 41-21, with 1:26 left.

Kentucky enjoyed its largest halftime lead since Kentucky State (55-32). Yet the memories of the second-half meltdown at Mississippi State -- ahead 40-24 at intermission, then losing in overtime -- lingered.

Valpo (25-8) scored the first five points of the second half to close to within 41-28.

But Bogans, without the slightest hesitation, answered with back-to-back three-pointers. Those shots not only pointed UK toward victory, they foiled Valpo's sensible plan to play Bogans for the drive and concede him perimeter shots.

"He had a nice stroke and rhythm," Drew said. "He looked like he could shoot all day like that."

Kentucky's fondest wish would be for more days like yesterday from Bogans.

"You can see what it means," J.P. Blevins said of Bogans' scoring. "We were kind of clicking on all cylinders."

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