Date story published: Friday, March 18, 2005
INDIANAPOLIS -- Not counting self-inflicted wounds, Kentucky lacks a killer's instinct.
That was the message the Cats took from an opening-round 72-64 victory over Eastern Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament yesterday.
UK's victory breathed life into the event's unofficial slogan: Survive and advance. Otherwise, the Cats lamented a dull performance that did nothing to erase the memory of last Sunday's loss to Florida in the Southeastern Conference Tournament finals.
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Kentucky flirted with the kind of blowout victory national contenders post in the first round. Then EKU hit a flurry of three-pointers to kick in what the Cats substitute for killer instinct: thriller instinct.
"Definitely way too close for comfort," reserve forward Bobby Perry said. "But that's the way it's been all season."
Eastern Kentucky closed a 16-point deficit early in the second half to 64-59 with more than four minutes left. Twice more the Colonels got within five.
But UK (26-5) survived to advance to a second-round game against Cincinnati on Saturday.
"We talk about it," freshman Rajon Rondo said of killer instinct, that ability to step on the throat of an opponent. "But we don't do it. We're always talking.
"We're done talking. No more talking. It's do or die."
Team leader Chuck Hayes called another team meeting on Wednesday to re-emphasize the importance of playing consistently well, an unattainable goal so far this season.
"If you heard us, you'd think we were all on the same page," Hayes said.
The game offered an alternative reality.
As expected, UK dominated inside. A 24-8 advantage in points in the paint propelled the Cats to a 15-point lead late in the first half.
Then two familiar bugaboos -- missed shots around the basket and questionable judgment -- prevented Kentucky from establishing a crushing halftime advantage. With the lead 37-26, Hayes jockeyed himself into prime scoring position (his defender, Michael Haney, already had two fouls and all but conceded the score). Yet Hayes somehow missed a layup, then an equally easy put-back.
After Eastern Kentucky hit only its second three-pointer of the half to close within nine, 40-31, Perry inexplicably launched a three-point air ball.
"That was a mental lapse," said Perry, who compounded the problem by fouling on an EKU three-point attempt at the other end.
"Nature takes control," he said of the sequence. "You get frustrated. Mistakes come in twos."
Ahead 40-32 at intermission, Kentucky extended the lead to 52-36 with 13:40 left.
Then Eastern, which had made only two of 12 three-point attempts, got hot.
The Colonels made four of their final six shots from beyond the arc. Reserve Ben Rushing made a 25-footer over Perry that reduced the lead to 60-54 with 8:20 left.
"Another mental lapse," Perry said. "I knew he could shoot. He was probably 7 feet from the three-point line. You're just not used to playing that close (to the shooter) that far out."
Matt Witt's three-pointer over Hayes reduced Kentucky's lead to 64-59 with 4:15 left.
After a turnover (a Rondo pass eluded fellow freshman Joe Crawford, who got held up in traffic), Kentucky needed clutch play to win.
Hayes provided it. He grabbed Randolph Morris' missed free throw, then posted up for a layup over Haney to put the Cats ahead 67-59 with 2:40 left.
With 55.2 seconds on the clock and the lead again down to five, Hayes made two free throws.
"We relied on talent," said guard Patrick Sparks, who was held scoreless. "That will catch up with us."
Of course, the latest team meeting was supposed to address such overconfidence.
"We played hard," Hayes said. "We just didn't play smart. We didn't go with instinct. We second-guessed ourselves on what we were supposed to do.
"We're a better team than that. We know we are."
Then Hayes offered a philosophical view of the game.
"It doesn't matter if you win by one point in all six games," he said. "You win, you get to move on."