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UK WEARS DOWN FEISTY EAGLES

Date story published: Sunday, November 25, 2001

"Horrible."

"Just awful."

"Disappointed."

Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith used those words to describe his reaction to last night's victory.

And despite a deceptively one-sided final score, his words fit UK's 94-75 beating of Morehead State.

As is their habit, the Cats surrendered three-point baskets. Morehead State's nine treys prompted Smith to label UK's perimeter defense "horrible."

Morehead State used its superior quickness and a spread-the-floor strategy to repeatedly penetrate into the heart of UK's defense. That led Smith to call the Cats' one-on-one defense "just awful."

UK's full-court defense? It left Smith "disappointed." In fact, the UK coach called it off rather than watch Morehead State continue to beat it for easy baskets at the other end.

Instead, Kentucky tried to make it a half-court game. Once the Cats quit scratching the itch to shoot three-pointers, they pounded Morehead State into submission with an inside-oriented attack.

"We were able to wear them down," said Smith, who then added, "We still need to take the ball to the basket with more authority and more aggressiveness. But we're getting there. I saw improvement."

For this post-game news conference, that qualified as wild-eyed optimism.

Morehead State Coach Kyle Macy, the former UK star, was not happy either. His team played wisely most of the first half, led by as much as four points as late as 12 minutes into the game.

The Eagles trailed only 40-38 with two minutes left in the first half. Then UK went on a 30-6 run that produced a 70-46 lead with 11 minutes left in the game.

"We started relying too much on self instead of doing things as a team," Macy said. "We were doing crazy stuff. We would call a play and we would run the exact opposite play. I was most disappointed that we got away from our game plan."

In so many words, Smith said much the same thing. Before the game, he preached the need for toughness and intensity. UK had practiced what its coach had preached.

Judging by Morehead State's penetrating drives to the basket, UK's practice work did not carry over to the game. Asked if this came as a surprise, Smith said, "No. I'm not surprised. We were just awful defending against the dribble. The guy gives us one fake or one move and goes by. It's not just one guy. It's everybody. Obviously, we have to go back to the drawing board and do a better job there.

"If we're going to be a good team, we're going to have to stop players one-on-one."

The UK coach acknowledged the difficulty of preventing a quick opponent from driving to the basket. "The hardest thing in basketball," he said.

But, maybe worse, UK's other defenders too often did not rotate over to stop the drive or take a charge.

"I bet we had three or four, maybe five opportunities to take a charge in the first half," the UK coach said, "and we didn't.

"It's a toughness thing: to stand in and let a guy stick a knee into your chest. It takes guts."

Besides toughness, stopping the drive also requires desire, the coach said. "It's a want-to and desire to stay in your stance, stay down and stop the guy from going by you," he said.

Point guard J.P. Blevins, who played for the first time since turning an ankle in UK's final exhibition game, noted how Morehead State's game plan put the onus on stopping drives.

"You saw how wide they were, spreading everybody completely out and just trying to penetrate," he said. "When a team does that, you're going to have some breakdowns. They did it more than I've ever seen."

Kentucky avoided the nightmare of another home-court loss to an in-state opponent by working the ball inside. During the 30-6 breakout, 11 of UK's 13 baskets were dunks, layups or put-backs.

One reason Morehead State stayed in the game was UK's reliance on three-point shooting. Of Kentucky's first 30 shots, 16 were three-point attempts.

"That's what a zone does to you," said Tayshaun Prince, who led the Cats with 23 points. "Especially the way they played it. They gave us the outside shot. We probably could have gotten more easy baskets if we had been more patient and got it inside."

Once Kentucky started going inside more, the rout was on.

"I thought we didn't do a good job getting the ball inside in the first half," Smith said. "We just weren't looking to getting the ball inside."

UK made a halftime adjustment whereby a pass went to the high post against Morehead State's zone. From there, the Cats got a better angle to feed players inside.

"After we settled down and played fundamentally sound basketball, basically we were better," Smith said.

From the sound of the post-game news conference, UK will have plenty more adjustments to make as the season unfolds.

Guard Keith Bogans, who added 20 points, put the coach's criticism in context. Smith wants a perfect game, he said.

"This was far from perfect," Bogans said. "We have a lot to work on. It's still early. I'm glad we have these problems now because I'm quite sure they're going to get fixed."

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