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MILD CATS HANG ON

Date story published: Sunday, January 5, 2003

CINCINNATI -- U.S. Bank Arena concession stands sell beer. So maybe the stunning sight of fans drinking their bottles of brew near courtside confused Kentucky's players here yesterday.

After a game-long lead grew to 19 points early in the second half, the Cats apparently thought it was Miller Time. Time to relax.

Wrong.

Riding power forward Brandon Hunter's considerable inside presence, Ohio rallied to within three points -- one measly possession. Almost two minutes -- hiccup -- remained on the clock.

UK won 83-75. But the sobering experience revived unpleasant memories of earlier riches-to-rags performances. In particular, the second half at Louisville came to mind.

"Real dangerous," forward Chuck Hayes said of UK's thriller instinct. "You just have to get a killer instinct in your heart. We get a little content, pretty much relax and hope the other team takes the loss."

Hunter, who grabbed a school-record 24 rebounds against St. Bonaventure on New Year's Eve, was a non-factor in the first half. His three free throws and four rebounds served, at best, as a footnote as Kentucky roared to a 41-25 lead at intermission.

UK dominated the first-half rebounding, holding a 30-12 edge. Ohio did not grab an offensive rebound in the first 12 minutes and had only two in the half: a fluke put-back of an air ball and a missed free throw.

The lead, which twice grew to 18 points in the first half, reached its zenith early in the second half. A Hayes three-pointer put Kentucky ahead 46-27 with 18:54 left. About a minute later, Gerald Fitch stole the ball and sped to a driving dunk that made it 48-29.

Kentucky (9-3) had nine dunks in the game, none seemingly more telling than the one off an inbounds pass that put the Cats ahead 65-50 with 8:30 left. As Hunter tightened his shorts, Hayes and Erik Daniels took notice and capitalized. Daniels cut past the distracted Hunter to the basket and dunked home Hayes' pass.

"We just got a slick one on them," Hayes said.

Hunter had most of the fun thereafter. He scored 15 of his 18 points and grabbed 12 of his 16 rebounds in the second half. The Bobcats' kamikaze zeal on the boards (Ohio outrebounded UK 26-12 in the second half) and improbable shotmaking in the clutch was a dangerous mix for Kentucky.

One play best signaled Ohio's refusal to surrender. After going to the floor to secure a loose ball, forward Steve Esterkamp flipped a nifty behind-the-back pass from his knees that set up a Hunter dunk.

"Those are the kind of things that concern me," UK Coach Tubby Smith said of Esterkamp's hustle play.

Ohio (3-6) still trailed by 13 with less than five minutes left. But two three-pointers and two put-backs left UK teetering at the abyss.

After Keith Bogans missed two free throws with 2:07 left, free-wheeling Sonny Johnson fired a three-point shot from the left side. It rolled around the rim, then paused momentarily before falling in. Gravity brought Ohio within three, 76-73, with 1:54 left.

"We started hitting some crazy shots," Ohio Coach Tim O'Shea said. "That helped. In a game like this, if you try to play a traditional game, go inside as much as the other team, it's not going to work for you."

Hunter's low-post basket over UK center Marquis Estill reduced the UK lead to 78-75 with 55.9 seconds left.

Cincinnati native Daniels missed a driving dunk, but put in the rebound to put the Cats ahead 80-75.

Ohio's last chance evaporated when Estill blocked Hunter from behind. Or did Estill foul Hunter? Unlike Indiana Coach Mike Davis, O'Shea did not rush the floor to make his case. He used sly humor in alluding to a game between a power like Kentucky and a mid-major like Ohio.

"I haven't seen any of those guys before," the Ohio coach said of the referees. "You can't expect to get calls on the road. That's why we got a big check. They want you to keep the bus running. We did our part."

Estill supported the non-call. "All ball," he said. "I wasn't near his body."

That a single call or series of plays in the final two minutes mattered weighed heavily on Kentucky.

Hayes suggested a way for the Cats to better handle prosperity.

"Turn off the scoreboard," he said. "That's about it."

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