Date story published: Tuesday, November 26, 2002
LAHAINA, Hawaii -- Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith went into the Maui Invitational wondering how much his team had learned from its poor pre-season.
Answer: Quite a bit.
Fueled by stunning improvement offensively and defensively, the Cats whipped Arizona State 82-65 in last night's first round. The victory advanced the Cats to a semifinal game against Virginia today (7 p.m. EST tipoff) and, perhaps, put the pre-season struggles in a new, less important perspective.
UK, which made only 39.1 percent of its shots in two exhibitions, shot as if determined to impersonate a popular local drink, the lava flow. Good shooting (50.9 percent) overwhelmed Arizona State, whose coach, Rob Evans, enjoys a reputation for creating aggressive and effective defenses.
"We were able to get baskets in transition," Smith said. "That was a big help. That gave everybody that positive attitude that we're going to make baskets."
Antwain Barbour, whose play continued to trend upward (13 points, four assists, two steals, three rebounds), noted the benefit of playing an opponent that wanted to run. If anything, Arizona State played too frenetically.
"Oh yeah," he said. "If we get a team like that, it's good for us. It's hard for teams to run with us. We have so many weapons."
Kentucky's defense was nearly as good. After exhibition opponents made 55.2 percent of their shots, the Cats never allowed Arizona State to get untracked. The Sun Devils, who played without their best player (Curtis Millage, sidelined as the NCAA decides if he's academically eligible), made less than 40 percent of their shots.
As on offense, UK set the defensive tone early. The Cats blocked three shots inside the first five minutes.
"We've been one of the best defensive teams over the years," Smith said. "Shot-blocking has been a big part of it. Eliminate the easy baskets. When you block a shot, it's usually on easy baskets. We even blocked jump shots and that was impressive."
The result had No. 15 UK looking like what it is: the highest rated team in the Maui Invitational.
UK downplayed the caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation.
"It's exhibitions," Smith said in dismissing the importance of UK's poor pre-season. "This is the real game."
Gerald Fitch, one of UK's four double-digit scorers, echoed the thought when asked about the improved shooting. "Nothing special," he said. "Nothing that got us going. That's how we shoot."
From the opening tap, Kentucky shot well. The Cats made 15 of their first 24 shots (62.5-percent accuracy) to bury Arizona State deep in comeback mode. Back-to-back three-pointers by reserve Josh Carrier, who made only three of 19 three-point shots as a freshman last season, capped UK's shooting display. The long-range bombs also pushed Kentucky's first-half lead to its zenith -- 38-18 -- with 6:47 left.
"When I hit that first one, it calms me down," he said. "It definitely helps to hit the first shot."
Inevitably, it seemed, UK's shooting cooled. The Cats made only two more shots the rest of the half. But Arizona State, which played too swiftly throughout the half, got no closer than 13 points.
Kentucky had its way despite foul trouble in its most vulnerable area: the front line. Forward Chuck Hayes went to the bench with two fouls at the 14:24 mark. Jules Camara, who started well (nine points and four rebounds), joined him with 12:28 left.
But nothing seemed to distract Kentucky from a remarkable turnaround from its uneven play in two exhibitions.
UK switched to a zone to counter the foul trouble and conserve energy in this test of three games in three days.
In the second half, Arizona State never got within single digits of Kentucky. But the Sun Devils did not submit. With the lead at 66-54, the Cats called time with 7:10 left. The strategy -- try Marquis Estill against freshman Ike Diogu -- worked. Estill scored three baskets, two with his left hand. When Arizona State enveloped him on another possession, Estill found an open Fitch with a pass. Fitch missed the three-pointer, but Keith Bogans capped a solid senior debut (20 points, seven rebounds and four assists) by scoring on the rebound.
"We knew we had -- not necessarily a mismatch -- but Ike was in foul trouble," Smith said. "We wanted to go to a guy who could score for us."
Estill delivered to cap a night of positive vibes for Kentucky.