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CATS CATCH A BREATHER

Date story published: Thursday, February 19, 2004

Figuratively speaking, clouds parted and gave way to shafts of sunlight.

"A feel-good game," Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith called last night's 73-56 victory over visiting Arkansas.

The Wildcats made amends for last weekend's gloomy loss at Georgia and validated the back-to-basics 6 a.m. practices which began this week."For the most part, we did the things we had to do to recover and regroup from a tough loss," Smith said. "It's good to have a game like this so we can build on some of the positive things we've been doing this season. It seems like even after we've won, something's been wrong."

By beating a fuzzy-cheeked Razorback team, Kentucky showed that it had a greater margin for error than generally evidenced by this season's many close games. Thirteen of its previous 21 games were decided by less than 10 points.

The Cats, who improved to 18-4 overall and 8-3 in the Southeastern Conference, got practically nothing from its steadiest player.

Foul trouble limited forward Chuck Hayes to seven points, four rebounds and 10 minutes, the latter his lowest total since January, 2002.

Kentucky also bricked many free throws, missing 10 of its first 13 attempts en route to a 13-for-25 night.

Yet even with senior guard Gerald Fitch appearing to be hindered by an injured hand that caused his three-game absence, Kentucky -- surprise -- romped.

For this, Smith credited UK's bench. The reserves, who had outscored their counterparts only five times this season, enjoyed a 23-11 advantage over Arkansas' substitutes.

Freshman forwards Sheray Thomas and Bobby Perry combined for 11 points to augment Erik Daniels' 21 points and Cliff Hawkins' stellar floor game (11 assists and one turnover in 29 minutes).

"Guys have gotten confidence," Smith said of the burst of reserve strength. "Since the start of the season, we want to get guys minutes to build self-esteem and let them know they can play here."

Individually, Daniels enjoyed the biggest darkness-to-daylight turnaround from last weekend. After the Georgia game, Smith chastised Daniels for playing "scared."

"I really didn't pay attention to it," Daniels said of the coach's biting comment. "I just know I didn't play well. I didn't contribute like I should have to help the team win."

Arkansas, which became the first SEC team with an overall losing record (11-12) and fell to 3-9 in league play, was the tonic Daniels needed. Back to his quirky best, he wheeled and dealed around the basket seemingly at will.

When asked to explain his success, Daniels said, "Arkansas let me get the ball wherever I wanted to. And their inexperience."

Contrasted with the double whammy applied by Georgia's Chris Daniels and Jonas Hayes, the piglets, er, Hogs represented a "big change," Daniels said.

"He was moving well without the ball," Smith said of Daniels, "and putting up those tricky shots that went in. He had to have a solid game because Chuck was having a tough time."

Although Hayes played less than two minutes, Kentucky never trailed in the first half. The Cats scored the game's first nine points and took a 34-23 halftime lead

Kentucky also opened up quickly in the second half, building a lead of 14 points inside the first seven minutes.

The prettiest play came when Hayes delivered a Wes Unseld-like two-hand outlet pass to Hawkins at the opposite foul line. Hawkins immediately dished to Daniels who dunked.

Again Kentucky continued to extend its lead without a lot from Hayes. He picked up his third and fourth fouls by the 13:10 mark and returned to the bench.

Fitch didn't score until he hit a 17-footer near the foul line with 14:20 left.

No worries this night.

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