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ERIK THE READY

Date story published: Wednesday, January 14, 2004

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- The third largest crowd in Humphrey Coliseum history came to watch undefeated Mississippi State play unflappable Kentucky last night.

Score one for unflappable. With an assist to Lady Luck.

After seeing a 16-point second-half lead melt away down the stretch, Kentucky pulled out a 67-66 victory because heady Erik Daniels found himself in the right place at the right time.

Daniels took a deflected ball and hit the game-winning layup in the final second to give Kentucky its 21st straight victory over a Southeastern Conference opponent. Few if any of the streak's previous victories saw Kentucky so close to defeat.

"I got lucky and it went in ," said Daniels, who scored 16 points. "You've got to have luck sometimes. You can't beat everybody by large margins."

Kentucky led most of the way, but fell behind 66-65 when Branden Vincent made two free throws with 1:01 to play.

The Cats might have fallen hopelessly behind had State not missed the front end of two one-and-ones in the final 30 seconds.

Kentucky got yet a third reprieve when Gerald Fitch, who led all scorers with 23 points, stumbled and lost the ball inside the final five seconds. Cliff Hawkins gave the Wildcats new life by tying up Timmy Bowers.

Like good fortune, the possession arrow favored Kentucky, which called time with 2.5 seconds left to strategize. The Cats wanted Fitch, who tied a career high with five three-pointers, to slip behind a double screen and shoot from the top of the key. Mississippi State stopped that, so Hawkins inbounded a lob toward Hayes at the basket.

State star Lawrence Roberts, who scored 15 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, seemed capable of intercepting the pass. Instead, he tipped it.

"I got a pretty good amount (of the ball), but not enough to grab it or make a play," Roberts said.

The ball went to Daniels, who banked it home. When asked if the winner typified Daniels' intelligent play, UK Coach Tubby Smith said, "That's exactly how I'd describe it. Erik has excellent basketball IQ. What he lacks in athleticism he makes up in intelligence."

UK (11-1, 2-0 in the Southeastern Conference) improved to 25-2 in its past 27 games away from Rupp Arena.

State saw its home winning streak snapped at 14 and became the second straight Kentucky opponent to taste its first defeat. The Bulldogs fell to 13-1 overall and 2-1 in the league.

"We had our opportunities," said State Coach Rick Stansbury, who grew up in Meade County. "That's all you can ask as a coach.

"It was just a deflected ball. One of those things. One of those things that you hope will not happen."

Kentucky never trailed in the first 38 minutes and twice seemed on the verge of breaking it wide open.

Helped by State's decision to defend low-post scorers one on one, UK zipped to its customary early lead. The Cats led 10-2 at the first TV timeout, making State the seventh straight UK opponent to score three points or less at that point of a game.

After freshman point guard Gary Ervin, who scored 11 first-half points, steadied Mississippi State, Kentucky hit four straight perimeter shots en route to a 16-0 run. Fitch, UK's most reliable long-range shooter, hit two straight threee-pointers to get it started. Then Bernard Cote took a three-pointer from NBA range at the top of the key. It hit the back of the rim and bounced several feet above the basket before swishing through.

If that didn't prove this was Kentucky's night, a 15-footer by Lukasz Obrzut did. The freshman 7-footer from Poland calmly connected from outside the foul line, his first basket since the Eastern Kentucky game on Dec. 23. It allowed Kentucky to match its largest lead, 35-17.

State closed within 37-28 by halftime, but Kentucky took control early in the second half. Defense and Fitch propelled the Cats to a 51-35 lead with 13:33 left.

Fitch scored eight of UK's first 14 points. His two free throws extended the lead to 16. The shots were also part of a streak in which Fitch scored eight straight points for Kentucky.

State rallied with relentless rebounding. During the first 18 minutes of the second half, the Bulldogs outrebounded Kentucky 23-8. "We took the backboards over," Stansbury said.

Four putbacks in the final 3:10 put Mississippi State ahead.

Temporarily.

"We were a little lucky tonight," Smith said before adding, "but I never felt we were going to lose."

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