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CATS' BIG MEN FRY GAMECOCKS

Date story published: Sunday, February 2, 2003

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Kentucky's big men turned the sparkling new Carolina Center into an 18,000-seat testament to wasted space yesterday.

Everything outside the shadow of the baskets shrunk to insignificance as the Cats overpowered South Carolina 87-69.

In a variation of a recent theme, this UK victory did not feature smothering all-court defense. Instead Kentucky's 10th straight victory was a true inside job -- scoring, passing and especially rebounding.

Yes, UK plays good defense and its veteran perimeter players are effective. Yada, yada, yada.

"But Kentucky, like all great teams, still beats you from five feet," South Carolina Coach Dave Odom said. "They tempt you from outside. But they beat you from five feet."

UK, 16-3 overall and 6-0 in the Southeastern Conference heading into Tuesday's titanic showdown against Florida, outrebounded South Carolina 37-24. The Cats enjoyed a 24-5 advantage in second-chance points.

Asked about the Cats' 17-6 advantage in offensive rebounds, Odom said, "It was terrific on their side. Pathetic on our side."

Center Marquis Estill, who led a balanced UK attack with 18 points, drew a bouquet from Odom.

"Marquis Estill is the most improved center in the league, I think," the South Carolina coach said. "Very, very improved."

UK Coach Tubby Smith cited Estill's relatively pain-free knees as a key factor.

"He's completely healthy," Smith said. "He's had knee problems in the past (both knees were scoped before his freshman year). When you have a bad knee, it affects your whole body. Your alignment and everything."

Estill credited South Carolina's decision not to trap down on the low post as a help. No doubt it also helped that the Gamecocks lost one big man, Marius Petravicius, to a torn knee ligament earlier this season and the other, Tony Kitchings, was battling stomach flu.

"I felt like I was bigger and stronger than (forward Rolando) Howell and Kitchings," Estill said. "I like it when teams play me one on one. Then I feel it's going to be hard to stop me."

Estill did not win the game single-handedly. Each of UK's front-court starters scored double-digit points.

Another dose of Kentucky's crisp interior passing -- 22 assists among 34 baskets -- made South Carolina seem a step slow all day. Most memorably, Chuck Hayes put a high-low pass in Estill's hands as Kitchings momentarily turned his head. That lapse helped cap a 24-4 UK run that blew open the game late in the first half.

"Wow," South Carolina guard Chuck Eidson said of the breakout. "There was like a five-minute spurt when they just obliterated us. They just got every offensive rebound."

"Everybody talks about their defense," Odom said. "I do, too. But they are the best passing team in the league, particularly interior passing. Estill to Hayes. Hayes to (Erik) Daniels. Daniels to (Jules) Camara. Camara to Estill. It just never stops."

Kentucky players cited no special drill or magic potion that produced the passing knack.

"It's just chemistry," Hayes said. "Repetition. We play with each other and against each other every day in practice. We're starting to jell and putting everything together."

Smith suggested that Daniels' unselfishness play sparked Kentucky's pass-happy front court. Daniels' five assists against South Carolina kept him as the team leader in SEC play with 20.

"That's a big part of our offense," the UK coach said of the passing. "Erik Daniels is probably the best passer on the team. He's the best at finding the open man and being creative. When one guy does it, the others don't mind sharing the ball."

Odom likened UK's interior production and unselfishness to the Maryland front line that reached the Final Four two years ago.

The South Carolina coach hinted broadly that Kentucky can reach such lofty heights this spring when he mentioned "the national 'C.' "

National championship?

"I'm not going to use that word," Odom said before slyly adding, "It could be 'caliber.' It could be a lot of words. I'm not going to do that to Tubby. What I will say is there are not too many teams with that kind of balance.

"And they use it well."

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