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CATS PLAY FAST AND LOOSE, DEAL CARDS THEIR FIRST LOSS

Date story published: Sunday, December 18, 2005

Kentucky righted its foundering ship by handing the wheel to point guard Rajon Rondo.

Earlier in the week, Rondo's high school coach and adviser, Doug Bibby, suggested publicly that UK turn Rondo loose. As if on cue, Rondo showed the wisdom of that advice in leading the Cats to a much-needed 73-61 victory over archrival Louisville yesterday.

Rondo scored a career-high 25 points. More importantly, he showed a new-found assertiveness early in the game. No more hesitation as UK's best player set a pace with a seven-assist performance.

"He was our floor general," teammate Ravi Moss said. "He did a lot of things right. When he plays that well, we're a tough team to play."

By soundly beating Louisville in Rupp Arena, Kentucky made amends for the embarrassing 26-point loss against Indiana last weekend.

"This was our best effort, best all-around effort in all phases of the game," UK Coach Tubby Smith said. "The start, I thought, was the key. We got off to a great start and that energized us."

Kentucky (7-3) scored the game's first eight points en route to a 39-24 halftime lead.

Throughout the fast start and dominant half, Rondo sparkled. Twice in UK's first four possessions he drove for baskets. On the fifth possession, he drove and fed starting center Lukasz Obrzut for a dunk.

"Rajon got us going early with his attacking the rim, pushing the ball and finding people open," Smith said.

Although Rondo and Smith met earlier in the week, more than talk fueled Rondo's play.

"A couple of plays were called for me to attack early," Rondo said. "He (Smith) wanted me to come out and attack more, get my man in foul trouble and get my teammates better shots from where I think they can make it."

The UK coach also let Patrick Sparks play point guard early, moving Rondo to the wing.

"It took some pressure off him ... ," Smith said. "It was an adjustment I thought would help and it did."

After Louisville (6-1) closed its deficit to 15-11 despite early 3-for-19 shooting, Rondo accounted for all the points in an 8-2 Kentucky run.

Rondo did this in a variety of ways: making both ends of a one-and-one, hitting a three-pointer, driving to a fast-break layup.

Then Rondo drove again and fed Shagari Alleyne for a dunk. That gave UK a 25-13 lead with 7:09 left.

"He was taking what they gave him," Smith said of Rondo. "Under control. Being very poised."

Rondo and Smith met last week to talk about Rondo's confusion and frustration. The coach told the player to be more of a leader on and off the court, in games and in practices. The player received reassurance from the coach.

"When I make decisions, he's behind me," Rondo said.

Rondo had a quieter second half. But after Louisville closed a 23-point deficit to 66-53, the sophomore from Louisville made six straight free throws to point Kentucky to victory.

"Rondo is a terrific guard, one of the top five guards in college basketball," Louisville Coach Rick Pitino said. "When he's hitting free throws (10-for-15), he's tough. He gets to the rim."

Pitino leaned on his NBA experience in likening Rondo to Kevin Johnson, the former point guard for the Phoenix Suns. Like Rondo, Johnson was an iffy perimeter shooter in college. But both have a devastating equalizer.

"Regardless of how much you sag or pressure, he gets to where he wants to get on the court," Pitino said of Rondo/Johnson. "He makes everybody better on the court."

That's why he dismissed talk of a Kentucky team in crisis after the Indiana game, Pitino said. Top guards are a precious commodity in college basketball and Kentucky has one in Rondo.

"Very few players get exactly where they want to go regardless of what defense you play," Pitino said. "He's one of those people."

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