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AZUBUIKE TO THE RESCUE

Date story published: Thursday, February 24, 2005

Kelenna Azubuike did not argue when a reporter suggested he just played his best college game.

"Points-wise, yeah, I guess," he said after his career-high 30 points led UK to a 81-73 victory over Auburn last night. "It was fun. I wanted to be aggressive. Get to the glass. Get to the bucket. Get fouled. And it worked.

"It was certainly a well-timed standout performance. Auburn's unorthodox style and perhaps a bit of UK overconfidence made for an unexpectedly competitive game.

"Sometimes they don't appreciate how good a team is till (the opponent) shows up and you have to play them," UK Coach Tubby Smith said.

To the rescue rode Azubuike, who's spent much of his career showing enough flashes of brillance to cause friends, critics and even the player himself to feel he should be more productive. "In the past, I've lost focus sometimes," he said. "I'm trying to stay aggressive."

Reflecting on Azubuike's scoring and 11 rebounds (which tied a career high and gave him his second career double-double), Associate Coach David Hobbs said, "He probably sensed we needed him to be a little more aggressive."

Azubuike, whose scoring enabled UK to clinch at least a tie for its sixth straight Southeastern Conference Eastern Division championship, got off to a hot start. After missing a forced leaner to beat the shot clock, he hit three straight three-pointers.

"When you get confident, you have a tendency to take shots you might not take if you'd missed your first three shots," said Auburn Coach Jeff Lebo, who added another factor. "He had more opportunities against us because we don't have great size."

Auburn (12-14, 3-10 SEC) started only one player taller than 6-foot-3. Said teammate Chuck Hayes of Azubuike, "He got into the lane with ease."

Once there, Azubuike produced. His 11 free-throw attempts and nine makes were both career highs.

"He was the difference-maker in the game ... ," Lebo said. "He was the best player on the floor, without a doubt."

Azubuike's versatility makes him a tough matchup even for normal-sized opponents, Lebo said.

"He can make jump shots. He's explosive on his first step. He has the ability to get fouled. He can offensive rebound. He can score in so many ways. He's so explosive around the basket," the Auburn coach said.

Lebo then mentioned Azubuike's physique, which prompted Smith's famous needle of last season: Looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane.

"His arms look like most guys' legs," Lebo said.

Kentucky, which can clinch the SEC's regular-season championship by winning at Alabama on Saturday, figured to beat Auburn. Stuck in the early phases of a massive rebuilding effort, Auburn had lost four earlier SEC road games by an average of 27.3 points.

But Kentucky (21-3, 12-1 SEC) seemed out of sync at times against an unusually small but quick opponent. Throw in Auburn's 12 three-pointers, which matched a season-high for a UK opponent and nearly doubled the seven the Tigers made in the last two games, and UK had no easy time. The Cats did not lead by double digits until Ravi Moss hit two free throws with 5:27 left to make it 67-57. UK's largest lead was 12.

"Thank goodness he was able to step up and be productive," Smith said of Azubuike.

The UK coach said the game's style played to Azubuike's strengths when Auburn trapped a ball-handler. A pass out of the trap found a teammate with a single defender to beat.

"If he can catch you one on one, he's a pretty good player," Smith said.

However, Azubuike said the game did not always play to his strengths. Because UK went small at times to match Auburn's quickness, Azubuike found himself playing power forward.

"I know most of the plays at '4,' " he said. "But sometimes I have to think."

As is his custom, Azubuike controlled his emotions. Even UK's first 30-point scoring night since Gerald Fitch got 34 against Tennessee Tech on Nov. 28, 2003, did not move Azubuike to exultation.

"I'm not too excited right now," he said, "because we've got a 6 a.m. practice tomorrow."

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