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CATS' FRESH START LEADS TO BETTER DEFENSE, REBOUNDING

Date story published: Thursday, February 16, 2006

Riding a three-game losing streak in a season of uphill struggle, Kentucky was in no position to be picky about a victory. So an "OK" game against Georgia last night was A-OK with the Cats.

Kentucky won 68-61 using the staples of Tubby Smith's system -- rebounding and defense -- to outlast Georgia and overcome its own continuing misadventures. The victory, which gave Kentucky's NCAA Tournament hopes a needed boost, began with a new lineup and ended with the same old problem of finishing poorly.

"Other than taking care of the ball," Smith said, "we played, uh, an OK game.

"We'll have to play a lot better than this against South Carolina" on Saturday.

UK dominated the boards 46-26, a near repeat of the 41-23 advantage in Athens last month. That rebounding enabled the Cats to enjoy a 22-8 advantage in second-chance points.

The big change came on defense. After Vanderbilt's 58.8 percent shooting last weekend, the Cats held Georgia to 35.5 percent.

A season-high 26 turnovers prevented an easy victory. Kentucky, which improved to 16-9 overall and 6-5 in the Southeastern Conference, came uncomfortably close to blowing a 14-point lead in the final four minutes because of turnovers.

UK committed six straight -- and seven in an eight-possession span -- to give Georgia a chance.

"At times, we felt we had the game under control," Smith said. "With this team, we never really finish games the right way ... . I thought we were very tentative there, and Georgia got very aggressive."

Georgia, 14-10 overall and 4-7 in the SEC, closed within 59-54 with 1:40 left.

Then Kentucky threw long passes over what Patrick Sparks called Georgia's "frantic mode" and got back-to-back baskets that eased the growing tension.

"I definitely got worried," Bobby Perry said of the late-game wobble. "Adrenalin starts running. They put the pressure up. I don't know if it's nervous, but just anxious."

A new lineup and a rejuvenated defense helped Kentucky control much of the first half. But one thing didn't change: UK's uneven play.

Kentucky held Georgia scoreless for more than eight minutes. The Bulldogs made five of their first 23 shots.

Yet UK led only 28-25 at the break. And the Cats had to score the half's final four points to take a lead into the locker room.

Kentucky started its ninth different lineup in 25 games. Making good on his promise of a new start to the season, Smith began the game with senior Brandon Stockton at point guard. It was Stockton's first collegiate start. Other starters were Ravi Moss, Lukasz Obrzut and Perry along with the lone holdover, Sparks, who extended his streak of consecutive starts to 106, the eighth longest active streak.

The crowd warmed to the lineup and cheered the effort. Smith didn't make a substitute until Randolph Morris replaced Obrzut at the 14:54 mark.

"Those guys gave us a lot of energy and a lot of effort," Smith said. "They didn't make a lot of mistakes defensively."

Shortly after the substitutions began, Kentucky methodically scored 15 straight points to take a 22-10 lead with 7:22 left. That represented UK's first double-digit lead in four games (or since the 81-66 victory at Mississippi State on Feb. 1).

Just when it seemed a relatively easy UK victory might be in the offing, the game tightened. UK struggled with Georgia's 1-3-1 trapping defense. Back-to-back three-pointers by freshman Mike Mercer drew Georgia close. The Dogs took a 25-24 lead on a reverse layup by Levi Stukes with 1:38 left.

Two baskets by Morris gave Kentucky a three-point lead at the break.

Kentucky established a bit of breathing room early in the second half. Nine straight points built a 42-31 lead with 14:14 left.

But the mini-breakout was no thing of beauty. After a UK timeout, Joe Crawford drove into a crowd and threw up a wild shot. UK got points when Crawford tipped in the miss.

Kentucky's lead reached its zenith at 57-43 with 6:33 left. Then the Cats began turning the ball over.

"What happens is, you go, 'uh-oh, here we go again,' " Smith said. "I'm sure that was going through their minds. One guy has a breakdown or a lack of communication, now panic sets in. That's been the biggest challenge to get them to understand: Don't panic. Be patient."

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