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Date story published: Friday, March 10, 2006

NASHVILLE -- Kentucky had to get used to the rims (Rajon Rondo).

Kentucky failed to realize what was at stake (Bobby Perry).

The officiating discouraged Kentucky (Joe Crawford).

Kentucky did not appreciate the difference Mississippi center Dwayne Curtis could make (Tubby Smith).

Theories abounded in the Gaylord Entertainment Center yesterday to explain Kentucky's sluggish start against Ole Miss in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

Without Curtis two weeks ago, Ole Miss lost by 40 points at Kentucky. With him yesterday, the Rebels led UK by three points at halftime, and kept the score tied inside the final seven minutes.

"Confusing," Crawford said of the change. "We have to come ready to play. They're not going to lay down. We can't just show up and beat teams."

Better late than never. Kentucky showed up in the second half and pulled away to a 71-57 victory. At 20-11, the Cats felt they erased any lingering doubt about an NCAA Tournament bid.

"I feel we put together an impressive enough resume that we should be in," Ravi Moss said. "The fact that we haven't won as many games as we usually do doesn't mean we haven't put together a resume impressive enough to get in the tournament."

Rhetorical flourishes from Smith at halftime got the Cats on the road to the NCAA Tournament. "Very angry," Rondo said.

"He questioned how we can't come out ready to play," Perry said. "How we allowed Ole Miss to have more energy."

Ramel Bradley and a quicker tempo helped save Kentucky from an embarrassing defeat.

Not so coincidently, Kentucky almost doubled its point total from the first half (26) to the second half (45).

"They got transition baskets, (and) that was one of our keys," said Brian Smith, the Rebels' backup point guard and son of the UK coach. "We wanted to keep it a five-on-five, halfcourt game. They really struggle in a halfcourt game."

Kentucky trailed the final 13:30 of the first half, and by as much as nine points. During one possession when Ole Miss got four shots, boos from the blue-drenched crowd filled the arena.

Bradley, playing again after missing four games because of a broken left (non-shooting) hand, infused UK's effort with his customary enthusiasm and energy. Actually, he might have been a bit too revved up, taking two shots in his first 27 seconds on the floor and then being called for walking within two minutes.

Once he settled down, Bradley equaled a career high of three three-pointers and contributed 11 points.

"Regardless of whether he's healthy or not, he's lethal," Perry said of Bradley. "A huge lift like that was key when the offense was kind of stagnant."

Bradley saw himself filling a role. "My job is to provide a spark and pick up some energy defensively," he said.

It took Kentucky an uncomfortably long time to take control. The game was tied at 46-46 with barely six minutes left.

UK led 49-48 inside the final six minutes when a 10-0 run made for a winnable cushion. Bradley got the mini-breakout with his third three-pointer. Then with the shot clock inside three seconds, Rondo launched an NBA-length three-pointer that swished.

Randolph Morris, who led UK with 17 points, contributed a dunk in the run.

Even Curtis, who scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds in 17 foul-plagued minutes, could not overcome that.

The breakout came as UK extended its defense and got out on fast breaks.

The Cats are "a lot better" in an uptempo game, Rondo said. "That's what we've been striving for all year."

Crawford needed no prodding to endorse the uptempo style.

"I think we need to do that more often," he said. "Put pressure on the ball. We get away from that."

But when asked whether the faster tempo turned on UK's ignition, Crawford had a telling response.

"We got juiced up when we realized we could lose this game," he said.