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CATS ROLL AFTER ROCKY START

Date story published: Thursday, February 27, 2003

Tennessee star Ron Slay lived up to his billing as the favorite to win the Southeastern Conference's Player of the Year Award.

Kentucky continued on the path, which the Slay-led Vols made unusually rocky, toward the SEC championship.

Status quo looked fine as Kentucky beat Tennessee 80-68 in Rupp Arena last night.

Slay scored 22 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. His play made Tennessee a threat. But it also ignited a fiery halftime appeal for better defense from UK Coach Tubby Smith.

"There was a whole lot of Coach Smith on us hard," guard Cliff Hawkins said. "He really let us have it."

The Cats turned up the defensive heat, not that it showed in the Vols' 58.7-percent shooting (high for a UK opponent this season). The defense created turnovers, which UK converted into 24 points. Even Slay couldn't make up for the Vols' 11 second-half turnovers.

"I think Tubby threw out his game plan at halftime," Slay said. "In the first half, they played some zone. In the second half, they came out and played the kind of defense that made them the second-ranked team in the nation."

UK, which extended the nation's longest winning streak to 17 games (tying the second-longest for the Cats since Rupp's Runts), took charge midway through the second half. A 14-2 run established a 57-42 lead with 12:55 left. Kentucky had three fast-break baskets and Tennessee had four turnovers in the five-minute span.

Tennessee, which lost a third straight to fall to 15-9 overall and 7-6 in the SEC, got no closer than 57-51 the rest of the way.

"We were going against a team I thought was hot," Smith said of the Vols. "We took their best shot and survived."

Kentucky improved to 23-3 overall and 13-0 in the SEC.

Thanks to Slay, UK's halftime lead -- 39-36 -- was its smallest since trailing 36-28 at Vandy.

"He made some great shots as the (shot) clock was running down," Smith said of Slay's 13-point first half. "That's what great players do."

Defense, the cornerstone in Kentucky's rise to national prominence, practically disappeared in the first half. Tennessee made 14 of its first 20 shots en route to a 62.5-percent shooting half.

Kentucky played visibly harder on defense in the second half. Tennessee had five turnovers inside the first six minutes. And with UK ahead 43-40, the Vols missed nine of their next 10 shots and looked -- in the word for the week -- discombobulated.

"That was the key," Hawkins said of Kentucky's second-half defense. "In the first half, we allowed them to throw the ball wherever they wanted and get the ball to Slay whenever they wanted. That (second-half) pressure really rattled them."

Hawkins and Keith Bogans capped the 14-2 breakout. Hawkins hit a floater on a three-point play to make it 55-42 with 13:44 left. Bogans added two free throws with 12:55 left to expand the lead to 15.

Then UK went cold and Tennessee charged. The Vols scored nine straight points to close within 57-51.

Jules Camara, a hero in UK's 74-71 victory at Tennessee in January, rode to the rescue again. He hit back-to-back baskets to stem Tennessee's rally.

Camara also had success containing Slay for large chunks of the second half.

"Jules is long," Smith said of the pencil-thin 6-foot-11 senior. "He gave (Slay) a tough target to see over. Jules is quick, too."

The UK coach also credited the different defensive looks thrown at Slay as a factor. Chuck Hayes muscled with the Tennessee star early. Camara used his quickness to distract Slay.

Afterward, Slay conceded the better team won.

"For the most part, everybody on their team did their job," he said. "They just have a great team one through nine. We went out there and fought our hearts out. When it came down to it, they're just a more talented team than we are."

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