Date story published: Friday, March 28, 2003
MINNEAPOLIS -- Halftime was a time to be counted upon or counted out.
Kentucky was locked in a surprisingly competitive game with Wisconsin. A high ankle sprain had removed Keith Bogans -- "the heart and soul of this team," trainer David Kindy said -- from the action.
Wisconsin's heart and soul, New Zealander Kirk Penney, poured in 17 first-half points.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
UK assistant coach David Hobbs put it simply: With the Cats' national championship hopes on the line, Who wants to guard Penney?
"I told him, 'I do,'" Chuck Hayes said.
With Hayes answering the defensive call and center Marquis Estill doing the same on offense, Kentucky beat Wisconsin 63-57 last night in the Midwest Region semifinals.
No one had to tell the Cats that without Hayes' can-do volunteerism and Estill's inside dominance, UK's magical season could have -- poof! -- disappeared abruptly.
Instead, Penney, although toughened by years of international competition, managed only three shots and one basket while playing the entire 20 minutes of the second half.
With Estill scoring a career-high 28 points against Wisconsin's single coverage, UK extended the nation's longest active winning streak to 26 games. Kentucky, 32-3, will play Marquette in Saturday's regional final (tipoff at 4:40 p.m.).
Kentucky's most tenacious defender, guard Cliff Hawkins, credited Hayes' defensive work as crucial.
"That's the reason we were able to hold onto the lead," he said. "If Penney shook loose and hit a couple threes, it could have gotten real ugly for us."
Hayes was more blunt. When asked why he volunteered to guard Penney, he said, "Because I didn't want to go home."
Penney's only second-half basket -- a three-pointer off an inbounds pass -- gave Wisconsin its last lead: 40-38 with 15:35 left. Thereafter, the Badgers' leading scorer took only one more shot.
"I couldn't let him get a shot off," Hayes said. "If he did have the ball, I was always going to have a hand somewhere in the dribbling area so he couldn't get too comfortable."
Penney second-guessed himself for passing to open teammates rather than forcing the issue with his own shots.
Five times down the stretch, center Mike Wilkinson tried to make plays. He missed three three-pointers. He caught UK by surprise with a driving layup that reduced the Cats' lead to 56-55 inside the final two minutes.
Then, after Erik Daniels' tip-in extended the lead to three, Wilkinson was called for traveling while trying another surprise drive.
Wilkinson denied that fatigue from trying to defend Estill inside affected his shooting. Maybe not, but the Wisconsin center struggled to contain Estill throughout.
"He was hot tonight, just knocking down shots left and right," Wilkinson said. "He holds his position a lot better than I saw on tape."
Wisconsin intended to make Estill put the ball on the floor, but the UK center was up to the challenge. Estill pivoted left and right from either low post, took feeds from the wing and caught lobs over fronting defenders.
When asked if he would have liked help from a teammate, Wilkinson said, "They do such a good job of spreading the floor and making one-on-one moves, you almost can't double. And if you run somebody at him, he's such a good passer, he can find the open man."
To his delight, Estill got what he expected: single coverage for a second straight game. He scored 18 against a single Utah defender in last weekend's second-round game.
"They played man-to-man, one-on-one in the post all year long," Estill said of Wisconsin. "You expect them to do what they've done all year long. It's been working. So it wasn't a surprise."
Estill wasted no time taking advantage. He scored UK's first six points, and 10 of the first 16. That sparked a commanding 40-14 advantage in points from the paint.
If Estill had made more than four of 10 free throws or not missed a two-handed dunk, he would have scored more than 30 points easily.
As it was, he had a career-high scoring performance. Coincidentally, his previous high also came in the NCAA Tournament (22 against Iowa in the 2001 second round).
"This time of year is when everybody's hungry," Estill said. "Everybody's trying to do what they can to help their team win."