Date story published: Monday, March 1, 2004
BATON ROUGE, La. -- If Kentucky's defense was a baseball pitcher, it would not be an overpowering fastballer. It would be a crafty junkballer who gets batters out by changing speeds and precise location.
UK Coach Tubby Smith credited technical know-how rather than physical domination as the reasons for another standout defensive game yesterday. The Cats held Louisiana State to 43.5 percent shooting in a 70-64 victory.
"This is probably one of my best defensive teams I've coached because we're doing it without a real inside presence," Smith said. "But our quickness has helped us.
"Quickness and just knowing, experience. Because we don't have the 'physicality.' We're not bigger than people. No shot blocker. We do it because they understand how to play defense."
Going into the LSU game, Kentucky had held five straight opponents to less than 40 percent shooting accuracy. That kind of sustained defense had happened only four other times in Smith's seven seasons as coach. If LSU had missed two more shots, the Tigers would have become the sixth straight UK opponent to shoot less than 40 percent. That had happened only once before in the Smith era: the 1997-98 national champions held 10 straight opponents to less than 40 percent, a streak snapped by Duke (43.3 percent) in the NCAA Tournament South Region finals.
LSU freshman Ross Neltner, Kentucky's Mr. Basketball for Highlands last season, played well. He provided a steadying influence as a ball-handler while scoring a career-high five points in a career-high 22 minutes.
"You want to play well in every game," he said, "but it was fun" to play well against Kentucky.
Neltner, a 6-9 forward, used head fakes to free himself for both of his layup baskets. "You do whatever you can around the basket," he said with a sheepish grin. "The name of the game is to get the ball in the hoop."
Neltner hadn't scored this season until he made a shot at Mississippi State last week.
"I've learned a lot already," he said of his freshman season. "My game is definitely improving."
Azubuike: My bad
As he entered the post-game interview area, Kelenna Azubuike didn't wait for a reporter to ask about his ill-advised three-point shot in the final minute.
"It was a bad shot," he volunteered as he headed toward a seat.
"I just saw I was open. I shot it before I thought about it. That's probably why I missed. I've got to play smarter."
Azubuike also picked up a potentially costly foul. He was called for a foul on Darrel Mitchell's three-point basket. The resulting four-point play reduced UK's lead to 64-62 with 37.2 seconds left.
"I didn't touch the guy," Azubuike said. "That was a bad call. He just fell."
Smith gave Azubuike credit for not bowling over Mitchell. "It was a close play," the UK coach said. "But you've got to be smarter. It looked like (Azubuike) had to come too far (to challenge Mitchell's shot). No one should be that open in that situation. That's where the breakdown was."
UK clinched sole possession of first place in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division. That assured Smith of a league title (divisional, overall regular season and/or post-season tournament) in each of his seven seasons as UK coach.
Yet Chuck Hayes noted how Kentucky remained a game behind Mississippi State with two games left in the overall regular-season race. "We need a little help," he said.
Asked if he closely watches the scoreboard for Mississippi State results, Hayes said, "Every time, man. We're trying to win the whole thing."
Smith noted how Erik Daniels was "laboring with a groin pull, really struggling with that."
Daniels has been playing with the discomfort for at least two weeks, the UK coach said before adding, "With a groin pull, it just doesn't get better unless you rest."
Cliff Hawkins dismissed the impact of LSU playing without injured center Jaime Lloreda. "It makes me no difference," the UK point guard said. "I ain't scared of him."
When asked if Lloreda's absence make the task easier, Hawkins said, "They played us tough. There wasn't anything easy out there today."
Daniels lamented Lloreda's absence. "I wanted him to be out there," the UK player said. "He's one of the best post players in the league. I wanted to see how I'd do against him."
Daniels may get the chance in the SEC Tournament. If LSU finishes second in the Western Division (and it enjoys the tiebreaker edge on third-place Alabama), the Tigers would be on the same side of the bracket as Kentucky.