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RACING OUT OF THE GATE

Date story published: Saturday, March 22, 2003

NASHVILLE -- There's no off switch on Cliff Hawkins' ever-ready competitiveness. Kentucky's perfunctory victory over Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis yesterday in the NCAA Tournament removed all doubt.

Although defeat was unthinkable as well as unprecedented for a No. 1 seed in an opening-round game, Hawkins came off the bench with his typically brooding intensity.

"He just plays with heart," teammate Chuck Hayes said.

Whatever concerns about an indifferent attitude from Kentucky disappeared, as did IUPUI in the Cats' 95-64 victory.

"I don't think the intensity level was sky high like it usually is when we play really good teams," Hawkins said. "We just felt they had no chance of beating us. We didn't want to come out and say it (on Thursday), but we felt that way."

Kentucky, which extended the nation's longest active winning streak to 24 games, never trailed. Yet IUPUI stayed reasonably close with a strategy of slowing the pace and getting back on defense.

When Hawkins came off the bench at the first TV timeout, the game changed.

"He changes the tempo," said IUPUI point guard Matt Crenshaw, the sober-minded 27-year-old Navy veteran. "When he came in, he basically got them in an up-and-down game. When Kentucky plays like that, they're pretty much unbeatable."

Kentucky's transition game peeled off like a dragster late in the half. Heavy-footed Hawkins had the pedal to the metal.

After IUPUI made a mini-run to reduce its deficit to 36-23, Hawkins twice made steals to ignite a UK fast break. On the first, he slipped around Brandon Cole, a 6-foot-6 freshman, to take the ball.

"Big guys have a tendency to dribble the ball high and turn their backs," said Hawkins, 5 inches shorter than his victim. "That's what I'm waiting for. My eyes light up when guys turn their backs."

Less than a minute later, Hawkins broke into the lane to pick off a cross-court pass.

Each steal ignited a fast break that culminated with a Gerald Fitch basket. Fitch, who equaled a career high with 25 points, swished a three-pointer on the first and made a layup on the second.

"We wanted the game to go up and down," Hawkins said. "We felt we could wear them down."

Hawkins applied the coup de grace in the final possession of the first half. He rushed downcourt, stopped and popped from the top of the key. The three-pointer dropped in to give UK a 48-28 halftime lead.

"I had my momentum," Hawkins said of the shot. "I had my legs, my wheels moving."

The shot completed a 19-2 advantage Kentucky enjoyed in fast-break points. The Cats also had a 15-2 edge in points off turnovers in the half.

The Jaguars (20-14) rallied briefly in the second half, reducing the UK lead to 56-43 with less than 14 minutes to play

Again Hawkins entered the game and again Kentucky pulled away.

Asked if he looked to spark UK off the bench, Hawkins said, "That's just me. That's just my game, trying to make plays defensively and just playing tough defense and finding open guys."

Kentucky (30-3) is bound for a second-round game against Utah on Sunday. UK has grown used to Hawkins at full throttle. That he raised the intensity level against IUPUI came as no surprise.

"He did what he does best," Hayes said, "and what he's been giving us all year."

As a bonus, Hawkins made two three-pointers and equaled a season high with five baskets. But, as teammate Jules Camara noted, it's on defense that Hawkins sparks Kentucky.

"I don't even look at what he did offensively," Camara said. "I just watch the pressure he puts on the other team's point guard. That's what makes it easy to get steals."

Those steals fuel Kentucky's transition offense.

Speaking of transition, Hawkins and teammate Erik Daniels had vowed not to cut their hair until Kentucky lost. Yet Hawkins came to the Southeastern Conference Tournament with a noticeable trim.

"I felt it was a new season, a fresh start," he said. "Start all over again."

New start, maybe, but as IUPUI saw, same intensity.

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