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Date story published: Sunday, December 14, 2003

DETROIT -- If this Kentucky team is headed for a distinctive nickname, an honor reserved for a select few in such a storied program, yesterday's 79-74 victory over Michigan State showcased a possibility: The Unflappables.

UK overcame the distraction of a much-ballyhooed, world-record crowd of 78,129 and shrugged off having to play on a unique court raised 3 feet off the Detroit Lions' football field.The Cats also beat a ranked opponent doubly aroused by its two-game losing streak and its desire to win on such a once-in-a-lifetime stage.

Yet even when Michigan State kept charging, relentless as the hype surrounding this so-called "BasketBowl," Kentucky responded. Five times in the last 10 minutes State reduced a first-half 15-point deficit to two or less. Each time UK hit a clutch shot, controlled a key rebound or made a crucial defensive stop.

"It's disappointing they made some plays down the stretch on the offensive end and they made some plays down the stretch on the defensive end," Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said. "That was the difference in the game."

One man's disappointment was another's pride and joy. UK Coach Tubby Smith termed the competitive game as much a mental battle as physical. The winner, he said, would be "whichever team that could will themselves."

That team was Kentucky, which had its fun by shooting 66.7 percent in the first half and then showed its grit as Michigan State rallied.

"It looked like we were ready to fold and buckle," Smith said, "but we didn't."

No. 21 Michigan State, whose 3-4 record includes an 0-4 mark against ranked opponents, staggered early. UK made 20 of 30 first-half shots and led 34-19 with 6:18 left. Using craftiness and quickness, the undersized tandem of Erik Daniels and Chuck Hayes outplayed State big man Paul Davis. (UK had nine post-up baskets to Davis' one in the first half. The final count was 11-2.)

Yet inconsistent outside shooting kept UK from breaking it open. The Cats made only three shots outside the paint in each half. A rash of turnovers (four in five possessions) mid-way through the second half reduced Kentucky's lead to 59-57.

That's when point guard Cliff Hawkins, 2-for-11 from three-point range this season, hit a most timely trey. "The shot clock was running down (three seconds left)," he said. "I knew we needed a play."

Hayes, whose heart and hustle got him a spot on the Izzo-coached Pan Am team last summer, played as if trying out again for the State coach. His 17 points and game-high 12 rebounds surely made the grade.

And when the Spartans closed to 64-61, Hawkins tried another three. It missed, as the odds suggested. Yet Hayes got a hand on the rebound and guided it over to UK's best perimeter shooter, Gerald Fitch, who swished a three-pointer.

"Probably the worst play of the game," Izzo called it. "We forced them into a bad shot, the rebound came in the middle and we didn't get it."

Izzo approved of a later clutch play by Hayes. With Kentucky ahead 74-70 and barely a minute left, Hawkins turned the ball over and State freshman Shannon Brown raced to a breakaway layup. Hayes, whose thick legs inspired the nickname "Cankles" (no distinction between his calves and ankles), somehow caught the speedy Brown and grabbed the State player's right bicep to make the two points come at the foul line.

"The play of the game," Izzo said.

Brown made the free throws to make it 74-72 with 1:04 left. Kentucky went to Hayes in the low post for a counter. Though giving up 5 inches against Davis, Hayes somehow jockeyed into position to make a flip shot in the lane.

"Chuck didn't have a good game (at UCLA)," Fitch said of last weekend's game. "But he came out tonight and had his hard hat on."

A putback by Davis reduced UK's lead to 76-74 with 28 seconds left. Fitch sealed the victory by making three of four free throws.

Defensively, Kentucky held Michigan State to two baskets in the final 5:48, and only Davis' putback in the final 2:14.

Fitch, who led the Cats with 25 points, saw preventing a Michigan State lead as decisive.

"That was big," he said. "The crowd, they were just waiting for an opportunity to go crazy."

Despite the many distractions and obstacles, UK's clutch play made sure it did not happen.