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SPARKS REGAINS TOUCH WITH 12 POINTS

Date story published: Wednesday, January 18, 2006

ATHENS, Ga. -- A basketball dawn broke over a rainy night in Georgia.

Kentucky's 69-55 victory at Georgia last night came two long weeks after the last time UK finished a game with more points than the opponent. The intervening three-game losing streak represented the dark ages in Cat time.

Kentucky (11-6) dominated the backboards, executed offensively, made a season-high 56 percent of its shots and defended aggressively in what Coach Tubby Smith called the best performance of the season.

"It's not even close," he said of the offensive execution against Georgia's man to man. "It's by far the best we've been all year long."

This dawn after a dark fortnight included a breakout game from the slumping Patrick Sparks. He contributed 12 points -- his most since getting 13 against High Point on Nov. 29 -- to be among four UK players in double figures. All 12 came in the second half.

"It felt good," Sparks said. "Tonight brought back old memories."

Sparks smiled as he spoke. A similar smile crossed his face after he punctuated a much-needed victory by hitting a three-pointer with three minutes left. He slapped palms with teammates on the bench before practically floating back upcourt after the shot.

"I really like being involved with my teammates," Sparks said.

Center Randolph Morris led a balanced attack with 14 points.

Sparks and point guard Rajon Rondo combined for 13 assists (one more than UK amassed in any of the previous four games).

"That's how it should be every night," Sparks said.

Kentucky, which improved its Southeastern Conference record to 1-2, avoided the program's first 0-3 league start since 1975-76.

A 41-23 rebounding advantage keyed UK's win. "We played with some real heart and some real toughness," Smith said.

Kentucky had 14 offensive rebounds. Three times in the first half UK rebounded missed free throws, which was one way to compensate for poor free-throw shooting (the Cats missed their first four attempts and six of the first eight).

But the fact that UK shot as many free throws in the first half as it did in Saturday's loss to Alabama (12) reflected a more aggressive attitude.

Georgia, 11-6 overall and 1-3 in the SEC, controlled the game early. The Bulldogs made six of their first 12 shots and led by as much as 18-8. Freshman Mike Mercer, who led Georgia with 15, established that 10-point lead with a three-pointer.

"I had to not allow any doubt or any negative thought come into my head," Smith said.

Kentucky nudged ahead late in the first half and had a 35-32 lead at the break.

The Cats built a working margin early in the second half. Sparks, who had made only four of 25 shots in the previous five games, hit a three-pointer off an inbounds pass and a minute later hit a pull-up jumper.

That marked the first time Sparks made two shots in a game since UK beat Louisville on Dec. 17.

When Rondo converted a fast-break with a dunk to give UK its first eight-point lead (46-38), Georgia called time with 12:51 left.

A technical on Billy Humphrey for slapping the backboard after a dunk snuffed a Georgia rally. Humphrey's dunk reduced UK's lead to 50-46.

Sparks made both technical free throws, and Ramel Bradley hung in the lane for a basket during the ensuing possession.

When Sparks hit a floater from the right baseline, Kentucky regained a 10-point margin with 8:31 left.

Two straight driving baskets by Rondo re-established 10-point leads and signalled a Kentucky victory straight ahead.

"This feels good," Rondo said afterward. "That's all you think about on the plane. If you win, you're happy. If you lose, you're sad. Nobody will have a sad face."

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