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MEN OF STEAL

Date story published: Sunday, February 20, 2005

Chuck Hayes discarded his mask. Kentucky bid farewell to its recent poor play. Rajon Rondo separated Mississippi State from the ball.

Those three degrees of separation propelled Kentucky to a 94-78 victory over Mississippi State last night.

The Cats used a 27-6 avalanche to start the second half. That zoomed UK to a 73-49 lead and made the loss at South Carolina on Tuesday (and the lackluster victory over Georgia three days earlier) a fading memory.

Hayes spiced the breakout with good plays. But Rondo provided the meat and potatoes. He had seven of his career-high eight steals in the second half. That enabled him to equal the UK record for steals in a game (Wayne Turner against George Washington on Nov. 24, 1997).

Rondo's steals -- part of UK's 16 in the game -- ignited a transition offense that exploded for a season-high 94 points and buried Mississippi State.

"Oh, it's big," teammate Ravi Moss said of the effect Rondo's steals. "When he's doing that, we're really playing well."

Moss termed Rondo's knack for steals (he improved his total in 12 Southeastern Conference games to 35) as a gift from God.

"He's just blessed, man," Moss said. "The kid's blessed. He's got long arms, huge hands and he's quick as lightning. The kid's blessed by God."

The kid cursed Mississippi State, which fell to 18-8 overall and 6-6 in the SEC. The Bulldogs also lost star forward Lawrence Roberts, who injured a knee. Foul trouble limited Roberts to eight minutes in the first half. Then with 7:05 left in the second half, Roberts stepped awkwardly and appeared to hyperextend a knee.

He finished with seven points and three rebounds, the first time he hasn't had double-digit numbers in those two areas in a game since State played Arizona (seven points and seven rebounds) on Dec. 5.

"We don't think it's an ACL," State Coach Rick Stansbury said. "We think it's above the knee, but we'll have to wait and see."

How the Rondo-led UK defense affected his team, Stansbury was definitive.

"Once that dam opens up a little bit, it starts a little leak," the State coach said. "It leaks a little more and a little more."

Stansbury lamented State's season-high 23 turnovers and how Rondo and company converted them into high-percentage shots.

"The difference in the game was we had 23 turnovers and they had 10," Stansbury said. "That was the whole difference in the game."

For the first time since 1999, seven UK players scored double-digit points. Freshman center Randolph Morris led the way with 17 points, the most he's scored since getting 24 against Campbell on Dec. 29.

UK improved to 20-3, making Tubby Smith a 20-game winner in each of his last 12 seasons as a head coach. The Cats improved to 11-1 in the SEC and can clinch a sixth straight Eastern Division championship by winning its remaining home games (against Auburn on Wednesday and Tennessee on March 2).

A roller-coaster first half ended with Kentucky ahead 46-43. UK broke fast, using alert and aggressive play in building a 20-9 lead less than seven minutes into the game.

The Cats led 23-15 when Roberts departed with a third foul at the 11:55 mark. An easy victory seemed possible when the lead grew to 27-15. But Mississippi State didn't cooperate. The Bulldogs repeatedly beat UK in transition. Point guard Gary Ervin, who did not start for the first time all season, raced to a fast-break layup and three-point play that put State ahead 34-33 with 6:24 left.

Kentucky broke fast again in the second half. The Cats scored the first 10 points to lead 56-43 with 17:20 left.

State called time five points into the run. Then Rondo stole Roberts' telegraphed high-low pass and sped to a fast-break layup, carefully fending off Roberts by extending the ball away from his body as he shot.

Kentucky's lead slipped to single digits for 14 seconds after Ontario Harper scored off a baseline drive to make it 58-49.

Then UK scored the next 15 points to extend its run to begin the second half to 27-6.

Hayes dominated the stretch with inside play. He contributed two free throws after being fouled on the way to the basket, a post-up three-point play against freshman Walter Sharpe and putback when he grabbed a loose ball.

"I tried to go to the game instead of letting the game come to me," Hayes said of his switch to an inside-oriented performance in the second half. "I forced so many things. I need to have fun."

Part of that fun was to play without the protective mask he's worn since breaking his nose at Tennessee on Jan. 25. Because the mask got sweaty and slipped up and down on his face, Hayes decided not to wear it. Hayes did keep it nearby. "The mask is definitely in the building," he said, "just in case I need it."

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