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CATS SURVIVE RATTLER ATTACK

Date story published: Saturday, March 20, 2004

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Chuck Hayes again flirted with that Kentucky basketball rarity: a triple-double. The surprise was that he and several of his teammates didn't post triple-doubles last night.

Kentucky opened its record 46th NCAA Tournament with a scoring festival. Playing at an unusually fast clip, the Cats outran and outlasted Florida A&M 96-76.

Four UK players reached double-digit points with 16:03 left. A fifth joined the not-so-exclusive club with 12:19 left.

Hayes, who nearly got a triple-double last Sunday against Florida in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, had 12 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists. Had he not left the game with 4:36 left, he might have matched the lone triple-double in UK history: 19 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists by freshman Chris Mills in 1988.

UK (27-4) wore down Florida A&M in the second half. That enabled the Cats to advance to Sunday's second round against the winner of last night's Washington-UAB game.

Florida A&M, which for a while made plausible the NCAA Tournament's first 16th-seed victory over a No. 1 seed, finished at 15-17.

A man familiar with fast-paced basketball, former Arkansas Coach Nolan Richardson, all but predicted a surprisingly competitive game.

"I'll tell you what," he said from his second-row seat here. "Kentucky is not playing a bad team. Teams like Florida A&M don't get credit, but you have to be careful with them."

Kentucky emerged from its highest-scoring first half of the season with a 60-52 lead.

The Cats scorched the nets, hitting 22 of 34 shots (64.7 percent) and nine of 15 from three-point range. The latter represented more treys than UK made in 23 of its previous games.

What had the arena abuzz was that Kentucky needed to make all those shots to stay ahead of Florida A&M. The Rattlers made 21 of 38 shots (55.3 percent) and eight of 17 from three-point range (47.1 percent). This against a UK defense that had held every opponent to less than 50-percent accuracy this season and an average of 28.5 points in the first half.

UK's 60 points eclipsed the previous high this year for a half: 50 against Tennessee Tech. It was Kentucky's highest-scoring first half since scoring 86 at LSU on Jan. 16, 1996.

Likewise, Florida A&M's 52 topped the previous high for a UK opponent this season: 43 by Michigan State.

Florida A&M's unusual quickness and insistence on a fast-paced game defanged UK's defense. The Cats simply hadn't played this brand of basketball and the unfamiliarity showed. Repeatedly, Florida A&M players drove around UK defenders who no doubt expected an opponent to need time to decipher the tenacious defense. A&M kept Kentucky off balance by attacking.

A&M showed immediately that its no-fear pre-game declaration was not merely rhetoric. The Rattlers attacked UK at both ends, more than once stripping the ball from UK's grasp.

Although Terrence Woods missed his first four shots, the Rattlers played Kentucky evenly.

Woods, who finished with 22 points, got hot, making seven of 14 shots (five of 10 from three-point range) in the half. Yet Kentucky got even hotter. In one 43-second stretch, the Cats made three three-pointers. UK hit six of its first nine attempts and built several 10-point leads midway through the half.

Another flurry late in the half put the lead at its zenith, 60-49. But the last sequence showed Florida A&M wasn't going anywhere. After Kelenna Azubuike blocked a shot, the Rattlers intercepted the outlet. That enabled Woods to hit a three with 12.6 seconds left to set the halftime score.

Then at the other end, Florida A&M defended well enough to prevent UK from getting off a last-second shot.

Kentucky matched its largest lead with 12 minutes left in the second half. A 7-0 run put the Cats ahead 73-62.

Defense contributed to the mini-breakout. Azubuike blocked a Woods pull-up, leading to Gerald Fitch's fast-break three-point lead. Then Hayes took a rushed feed to the post and fed Fitch for another fastbreak layup.

The pace continued to slow as Kentucky took a tenuous grasp on the game. A&M began looking tired, the shots began coming up short and UK began fast-breaking and using its superior strength inside.

The 7-0 run mounted to a 17-5 breakout as A&M missed six of eight shots.

Fitch led the Cats with 26 points

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