Date story published: Saturday, November 22, 2003
Opening games often are not works of art. Kentucky's 65-44 victory over Winthrop last night was not artistic basketball.
But neither was it as unsightly as this week's Michael Jackson mug shot. Speaking of Jacko, UK's defense put Winthrop's offense in, if not Neverland, then Seldomland.
Winthrop's 44 points matched the lowest total by a UK opponent in an opener since Frank Ramsey, Cliff Hagan and the boys beat West Texas State 73-43 in 1950. The Cats also held Louisville to 44 points in 1983.
Although clearly better, as evidenced by UK Coach Tubby Smith's liberal experimentation with lineups, Kentucky never switched off the defensive heat. Winthrop, with four starters back from a 20-victory team last season, did not make its 10th basket until the 8:48 mark of the second half.
Winthrop Coach Gregg Marshall, who made his Eagles a Big South Conference power by emphasizing defense, saluted Kentucky's ability to shut down passing lanes and contain the dribbler. "They make every pass an adventure," he said.
The defensive effort, spearheaded by Energizer Bunny point guard Cliff Hawkins, evoked memories of Kentucky's suffocation of opponents last season. The carryover suggested that the Cats granted Smith's wish of finding an identity.
"That's always been our profile," Smith said. "We have a lot of returning players who understand what got us through last year."
Necessity made the carryover all the sweeter.
Kentucky won handily despite not getting much from Chuck Hayes or Gerald Fitch. Hayes went to the bench with his second foul at the 10:47 mark of the first half. He contributed a quiet 12 points and four rebounds.
And Fitch missed his first six shots (two from three-point range) and did not score until he made two free throws with 1:18 left in the first half. His first basket did not come until he hit a three-pointer in transition with 7:05 left in the game.
"If we don't come up with a great defensive effort tonight, they come away with a win," Smith said of Winthrop, which matched UK's defensive effort for a half. "That's one of our MOs. When we're not shooting well, we can hang in there with our defense."
The Cats credited the ever-intense Hawkins, who buzzed around the court as if matched against one of those upcoming Super Saturday opponents (UCLA, Michigan State, etc., etc.). He caused two five-second calls. "I thought he could have had five or six," Smith said. "He's just relentless."
Hawkins also whipped passes for assists five times in the first 12 minutes.
The fifth was timely in more ways than one. With Winthrop having reduced UK's early nine-point lead to 18-14, the Cats found themselves stuck on the perimeter. The shot clock reached its final five seconds when Hawkins knifed into the lane and twisted his body to find Kelenna Azubuike open on the baseline. Azubuike's three-pointer swished as the shot clock showed one second.
A minute later, Hawkins stuck an arm up and deflected a pass on the break. He then outran the Winthrop player to the ball and sped pretty-as-you-please for a layup flip. That gave Kentucky its first double-digit lead, 25-14, with 6:41 left.
Kentucky broke the game open early in the second half. The Cats scored the half's first eight points and used an 11-2 run in the first 5:12 to open up a 43-22 lead.
Sophomore walk-on Ravi Moss, who entered the game with 15:54 left, capped the breakout with a three-pointer from the left side. It was the first trey of his career. He attempted two last season.
To prepare for Kentucky's defense, Winthrop's starters practiced against six substitutes, Marshall said. Winthrop's 29.8-percent shooting suggested that the Eagles should have tried going against seven or eight defenders. No Winthrop player scored in double digits. Only one, reserve big man Josh Grant with nine, had more than six points.
"We could simulate it to a degree," Marshall said of the six defenders in practice. "But that sixth guy was just running around like a chicken with its head cut off. It's different when you have an athlete in the lane and a guy on the ball just lighting you up. That makes it very, very difficult."