Date story published: Sunday, March 20, 2005
INDIANAPOLIS -- It was worth the wait.
Neighborly non-rivals Kentucky and Cincinnati hadn't played against each other since 1990. When the matchup came last night, it proved memorable.
With a record crowd for an NCAA Tournament first week watching, Kentucky rode its staple -- tough defense -- to a 69-60 victory.
"It's March Madness," UK reserve Ravi Moss said after the draining 40-minute competition, "and we love it."
Besides making a Kentucky-Cincinnati game worth the wait, the Cats also found what they've been looking for all season: an inspired, intelligent performance that featured a long-desired toughness.
"It couldn't have come at a better time," forward Chuck Hayes said. "It came at a perfect time."
Kentucky held Cincinnati without a basket in the final 5:04 to advance to the Austin Region semifinals. The Cats (27-5) will play a familiar post-season opponent, Utah, in the third round.
Freshman center Randolph Morris led the way. He posted the first double-double of his career with 11 points and a career-high 12 rebounds.
Defensively, Morris manned the front line of a team effort that limited Cincinnati's leading scorer, Jason Maxiell, to nine points and four rebounds.
"With Randolph, we've preached to him the last couple days that he was the key ingredient," Hayes said. "We needed him. His presence. His big body. For him to match their intensity was big."
Cincinnati (25-8) trailed 60-59 with 5:04 left. Then the Bearcats missed their last 13 shots, including 10 from three-point range.
"My concern is always having such a short bench," UC Coach Bob Huggins said. "It looked like (forward Eric) Hicks couldn't even run up and down the floor. We just got tired."
Turnovers and fouls prevented UK from taking a comfortable lead into the locker room. Hayes went to the bench with two fouls at the 6:56 mark. Kelenna Azubuike, who led a balanced attack with 19 points, followed with 5:34 left.
Without those steadying influences, the Cats wobbled severely against Cincinnati's ever-increasing defensive pressure.
After not committing a turnover in the game's first 11 minutes (and being guilty of only one in the first 13 minutes-plus), Kentucky turned the ball over on five straight possessions. None seemed more telling than a 35-second shot- clock violation in which a pressured Patrick Sparks reverted to putting his head down and trying to dribble out of a skin-tight trap.
By the time Sparks got the ball to Rajon Rondo 25 feet from the basket, the freshman had three seconds to create a shot against two defenders. He never got it off.
Any Bearcat lead seemed implausible in the first 10 minutes. Seemingly eager for the competition, Kentucky shredded the proud UC defense. Sparks, who went scoreless against Eastern Kentucky in Thursday's first round for only the third time in his college career, hit a layup off a lob 16 seconds into the game.
Sparks hit his first three shots, two from three-point range, as UK blazed to leads of 11-0 (inside the first four minutes) and 25-14.
Rondo's second three-pointer, which set a personal career high, re-established the 11-point cushion at 25-14. It also gave UK 5-for-7 three-point shooting to start the game.
"That was huge from a mental standpoint," Hayes said of UK's fast start.
Kentucky took the initiative to start the second half. Back-to-back baskets by Morris pushed the Cats ahead 39-35 with 16:53 left.
Cincinnati wasn't going anywhere. Four times down the stretch the Bearcats closed within one point. The last time came at 60-59 with 5:04 left.
UK limited Cincinnati to one free throw the rest of the way.
"Wow, that's good," Moss said. "That's really what we're all about: Getting stops."
"Toughness isn't always about talking or getting in somebody's face," Perry said. "It's about executing.
"Talk is cheap. It's all about action on the court. We proved to all the fans and everybody, we're going to back up what we say."