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Date story published: Thursday, November 29, 2001

CINCINNATI -- On Tuesday, Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith questioned his team's strength up the middle (i.e. point guard and center). Much of the pre-season and early season, he's questioned the Cats' overall toughness (i.e. mental and physical).

UK emphatically answered those questions last night. And Smith liked the answers.

Getting strong play from center Marquis Estill and point guard Cliff Hawkins, the Cats beat Kent State 82-68 in UK's annual game in Cincinnati.

Estill scored 19 points in his third straight double-digit game (a first such streak in his up-and-down career). He also grabbed six rebounds and tied a career high with four blocks.

Perhaps best of all, he took two charges in the game's pivotal stretch: a 14-2 run early in the second half that gave UK a 56-43 lead to protect down the stretch.

Asked how he felt he played, Estill did not mince words. "I played great," he said with a self-conscious grin. Great? "Yeah," he said.

Hawkins played one of the steadiest and most productive games of his career. He scored a career-high 12 points and handed out six assists (one shy of a career high). He also had only two turnovers in almost 31 minutes in relief of starter J.P. Blevins.

Smith credited Hawkins for sparking a new-found cohesiveness to Kentucky's offense.

"A little smoother pace in our offense," the UK coach said. "Cliff was really outstanding. That's what I've been looking for from Cliff. Take care of the ball. Find people who were open. Play excellent defense. The bonus was him making two three-pointers.

"If we get that play from him, we'll be pretty solid."

Kentucky (3-1) needed to find answers.

Kent State (3-2), which was rated No. 15 nationally in Sports Illustrated's pre-season Top 25, did not wilt in the often toe-to-toe action. Led by strong man Antonio Gates and savvy point guard Trevor Huffman, the Golden Flashes did not allow UK to break open the game.

Kent State closed to 71-63 with 3:45 left. With the shot clock inside its final five seconds and Tayshaun Prince stranded near the sideline, UK made the clutch play. Prince passed to Estill, who immediately returned the ball to Prince. He swished a three-pointer as the shot clock sounded. It was only Prince's second three-pointer of the game.

During the first half, three UK players -- Prince, Erik Daniels and Chuck Hayes -- threw themselves on the floor for loose balls. UK forced Kent State into two 35-second shot clock violations. And when faced with an aggressive trap along the sideline, the Golden Flashes' Andrew Mitchell had to call a timeout to avoid a five-second violation.

Prince called one of those emergency timeouts as he flew out of bounds a split second after chasing down an errant Kent State pass.

No doubt Kentucky showed much more effort and intensity.

"It means we're getting through to them," Smith said of the hustle plays. "Because you have to match the other team's intensity. Kent State was willing to put their bodies on the line and on the floor. That's the kind of effort we need."

Behind Gates, who began his college career at Michigan State, the Golden Flashes held their own. A 6-5, 240-pound block of assertiveness, Gates scored 22 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.

Kentucky never led by more than three points in the first half and clung to a 42-41 lead early in the second half when the game turned decisively. The Cats outscored Kent State 14-2 in the next five minutes to take a 56-43 lead.

Estill sprinkled highlight plays throughout the breakout. He scored six points, including a freaky tip-in from about 7 feet away.

Maybe more importantly, Estill took charges from Mitchell and Huffman, Kent State's all-Mid-American Conference guard. After the latter, Keith Bogans and Hawkins chest-bumped Estill about as hard as Huffman had.

"It got the team pumped up," Estill said of his charges. "They're not used to seeing me take too many charges. They get into that."

Smith credited the big performance to the pain-free status of Estill's surgically-repaired knees.

"Now his mobility and agility is back," Smith said.

With Estill's knees feeling fine, he could more easily get in position to take charges, the UK coach said.

And the pain-free knees also made it easier for Estill to post strongly inside. UK outscored the smaller Golden Flashes 36-22 in the paint and enjoyed a 43-26 rebounding advantage.

"I feel a whole lot more comfortable," Estill said. "My knees are not on my mind."

Asked how much he thought of his knees as he played last season, Estill said, "My knees were constantly on my mind, whether I could get through the game, wondering if my knees would give out on me.

"Now my knees feel great. I have no worries."

If Estill and Hawkins keep playing well, Smith will have no worries about UK's strength up the middle.