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CATS NEED CRAWFORD'S CAREER-HIGH 23

Date story published: Saturday, December 31, 2005

CINCINNATI -- Kentucky's come-from-behind 71-63 victory over Ohio last night wasn't pretty. Then again, the grunt work necessary under the boards rarely inspires lilting poetic tribute.

"That's what the game is all about," said UK Coach Tubby Smith of his team's 19 offensive rebounds. "If you don't rebound, you're not going to have a chance at all to compete."

Joe Crawford cited necessity as the reason for his career-high 23 points.

"It was just the position we were in," he said.

Kentucky (9-3) trailed for all but two minutes until the final 2:30. The Cats won by scoring 12 straight points down the stretch against a tiring and panicky Ohio team.

"And the other guy was making threes," Crawford said, meaning Mychal Green, who led Ohio with 16 points. "I just saw us falling behind."

Crawford matched Green trey for trey, finishing with a career-high four,

Necessity led UK to change its strategy of defending Green, a 6-foot-4 senior. Rajon Rondo, UK's best perimeter defender, gave Green his entire attention in the second half. Not so coincidentally, Ohio's leading scorer went scoreless.

"I just kept the ball away from him," Rondo said. "Coach allowed me not to play help-side defense."

Of giving Green that kind of respect, Rondo said, "He earned it."

If not for the startlingly assertive play of Crawford, UK's halftime deficit surely would have been larger than 40-37.

Crawford matched his career high of 14 points in the half. His four three-point baskets doubled his previous career high.

"Joe was awesome," teammate Bobby Perry said. "He's been waiting for that breakout game. He kept us in the game."

UK needed Crawford's sharpshooting to offset Green, who made six three-pointers when Ohio narrowly lost to Florida in the 2005 NCAA Tournament. He scored all of his first-half points by the 7:12 mark. Then with Rondo more intent on denying him the ball, Green didn't score again.

Ohio jumped on Kentucky from the start. Green's fast-break layup gave the Bobcats an 8-3 lead, prompting a UK timeout with 17:38 left.

"About as bad a start as you can get off to," Smith called it.

"Maybe we took too long on the (Christmas) break," Rekalin Sims said, "and got lackadaisical. In the first half, they just kicked our butts."

Crawford got going midway through the half. He scored nine straight points for UK to prevent Ohio from taking a double-digit lead.

The Bobcats, who made 13 of 20 shots in the half, led by as much as nine twice.

"We weren't near them," Smith said of UK's first-half defense.

The second half did not begin with promise for Kentucky. The Cats committed turnovers in four of their first six possessions.

Ohio (6-2) had missed only seven shots nearly three minutes into the second half.

With 12:34 left, Ohio matched its largest lead of the game when point guard Jeremy Fears stole a Patrick Sparks pass and drove to a dunk. That put the Bobcats ahead 54-45 with 12:34 left.

Ohio did not score again for more than six minutes and had only two baskets from 17:46 to the 6:06 mark.

"I just think we got caught in trying to slow it down," Green said. "They kind of got us out of our game a little bit. I think we should have kept pushing it and running like we were in the first half, and keep the tempo going."

Kentucky slowly chipped away at the deficit. Crawford's three-point play (a putback while being fouled) brought the Cats within 54-52.

Johnie Jackson finally scored for Ohio, making a heavily contested twisting shot in the lane with 5:06 left. That gave the Bobcats a 56-52 lead.

Bradley banked in a three-pointer from the top of the key to reduce the deficit to 56-55 with 5:44 left.

Kentucky took the lead when Sims hit a layup while being fouled. His free throw put the Cats ahead 60-59 with 2:30 left. That marked UK's first lead since the 9:47 mark of the first half.

Crawford's leaning banker with 1:34 left gave the Cats a bit more breathing room. Then a UK team that missed its first six free throws clinched it by making seven of eight in the final minute.

Afterward, Smith spoke of the confidence that comes with winning close games and all but predicted many more to come.

"We really don't have the kind of team that can run away from people and deliver a big knockout punch," he said.

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