Date story published: Thursday, February 23, 2006
In building off last weekend's season-best performance, Kentucky did last night what good teams should do: beat a struggling team convincingly.
UK won 80-40 against a Mississippi team playing without its best scorer and rebounder (center Dwayne Curtis was home in Chicago to attend his brother's funeral on Friday). The Cats enjoyed an evening sure to liven spirits going into the gut-check games straight ahead: at Louisiana State on Saturday, then at Tennessee and home against Florida to finish the regular season.
"We like our odds against all three teams," said Joe Crawford, who led UK with 17 points. "A game like this definitely helps us get ready to take it to 'em."
UK Coach Tubby Smith saluted starting point guard Brandon Stockton for setting the tone. Stockton took a charge on Londrick Nolen five seconds into the game.
Stockton "sent a message," Smith said. "We were going to play defense."
The Cats limited Ole Miss to 22.4-percent shooting, the worst accuracy by a UK opponent since Morehead State made 13.8 percent on Dec. 16, 1995. No Southeastern Conference opponent had shot so poorly against Kentucky since at least the 1979-80 season.
"When you hold a team to 22 percent, I don't care who it is, you're doing a great job," Smith said.
After Stockton set the tone, walk-on Preston LeMaster gave the game a boogie-woogie rhythm. Much to the delight of the Rupp Arena crowd (24,278), he hit two early three-pointers en route to a career-high 12 points.
When told that LeMaster had previously scored only 15 points in four seasons, Mississippi Coach Rod Barnes blurted out, "You're kidding."
LeMaster, who had made only three of 12 three-point attempts in his four-year career, made four of five against the Rebels. His miss came with 8:30 left.
"Something I've always dreamed about," LeMaster said. "It was amazing, a really amazing feeling.
"I've always been able to shoot the ball. I made the first shot, then the second. After that, it was like clock work."
Rajon Rondo, who turned 20 yesterday, threatened UK's record for assists in a game (15 by Travis Ford against Eastern Kentucky on Dec. 8, 1993). He finished with 12 before leaving the game with more than seven minutes left.
Rondo did not need to be told he assisted on each of LeMaster's three-pointers. "And the one he missed was from me, too," he said with a grin.
Kentucky improved to 18-9 overall and 8-5 in the SEC. The Cats tied Florida for second place in the Eastern Division
All the first half needed were plates spinning on sticks, a ball balanced on a seal's nose and a seltzer bottle to complete the look of a novelty act. Kentucky cruised to its biggest halftime lead of the season, 40-17 (the Cats led Louisville 39-24).
With the opportunity created by Ramel Bradley's broken hand, LeMaster got the show started. His hit a pair of three-pointers (the first treys of his career against a SEC team, and only the fourth and fifth against anyone) to fuel a 17-2 breakout that gave Kentucky a 27-10 lead.
Previously, LeMaster had taken only one three-pointer in his career against a SEC team, and had played only three minutes in league competition this season.
"We knew he was a good shooter," Barnes said. "But we were not expecting him to be as effective as he was."
Ole Miss made four of its first 21 shots. In that time, guard Patrick Sparks snuffed Clarence Sanders' driving shot to record his first block against a SEC team and second of his UK career.
"I knew it was a block-fest out there," Smith said.
Even Shagari Alleyne, who had played one minute since Jan. 17, got in on the act. He made his first basket against a SEC team this season.
The Cats even made free throws, 10-for-10 in the half. Rondo, who came into the game shooting 12-for-31 from the line against league teams, made both his attempts.
Kentucky didn't miss a free throw until Crawford missed two with 15:34 left.
Ole Miss, which lost for the ninth time in the last 10 games, never seriously threatened Kentucky. The Rebels' 40 points marked the fewest scored by a UK opponent since the Cats beat Morehead State 71-40 on Dec. 8, 2004.