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THREES ARE A CHARM AGAINST BULLDOGS

Date story published: Thursday, February 2, 2006

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- After Patrick Sparks shot Kentucky to an 81-66 victory last night, Mississippi State forward Charles Rhodes gave him what currently is college basketball's ultimate compliment for a guard: a comparison to Duke All-American J.J. Redick.

"Sparks is unbelievable, man," Rhodes told reporters after the game. "I congratulated him. He just made unbelievable shots. Kind of like J.J. Redick. He and J.J. Redick are going toe to toe right now."

A more circumspect analyst, UK Coach Tubby Smith, did not object to Rhodes' assessment.

"Well," Smith said when told of the Sparks-Redick comparison, "he shot like him tonight."

Led by Sparks, the Cats made a season-high 13 three-pointers (the most for a UK team since a Sparks-led 13-for-19 performance at Alabama last season). That was more than enough to thwart State's mostly zone defense and extend UK's winning streak to a season's best five games going to Florida on Saturday.

Sparks, who equaled the season high of 25 points he scored against West Virginia in November, made five three-pointers. He has made more only twice in his two-year UK career: seven against West Virginia this season and at Alabama last season.

Sparks personally shot Kentucky out of danger early in the second half.

After State reduced a 13-point UK lead to 42-39, Sparks swished a three-pointer from the left corner.

"I screened for Ravi and went to the corner," Sparks said. "He made a nice pass."

Barely a minute later, Sparks hit his patented turnaround shot in the lane, then added a pull-up three-pointer reminiscent of the outrageously long bomb at the end of the South Carolina game.

"It's a good sign," Sparks said of that particular three-pointer off the dribble. "I had hit a couple in a row. Any time you do that, your confidence is really high."

As if to punctuate his spree with an exclamation point, Sparks tipped in his own missed 12-footer in the lane.

"I don't know what happened there," Moss said with a grin. "It was crazy."

Even the usually laconic Sparks smiled when asked about the tip-in. "I don't know," he said, trying to suppress a look of joy creeping onto his face. "I knew where it was coming off because I shot it."

Sparks' flurry came in a span in which Kentucky made 11 of 13 shots.

Kentucky improved to 15-6 overall and 5-2 in the Southeastern Conference. The latter moved the Cats into a tie with Florida for second in the Eastern Division, a game behind Tennessee.

Mississippi State, which lost its seventh straight game, fell to 11-10 overall and 1-7 in the SEC.

Sparks had made only two of 10 three-point shots in the previous two games. But he had a pair of treys and eight points to help Kentucky take a 23-14 lead with 12:50 left. UK saw his good early shooting as an omen of great things.

"When he hits his first couple shots, you know it's going to be a tough situation for the defense," Bobby Perry said.

It was. "He was feeling it," Moss said. "When Sparks is feeling it, you've got to get him the rock."

Earlier this season, Sparks went through a 4-for-22 three-point shooting slump. That made starbursts like last night's all the more brilliant.

Yet, Sparks downplayed that suggestion that his nine baskets (which tied a career high) represented a hot hand.

"I was just trying to be aggressive," he said. "I got good looks early. Then I got good looks all game."

Smith shied from labeling Sparks a streaky shooter.

"I can't say he's a streak shooter," the UK coach said. "But when he's on his game and he gets it off quick and he releases it without thinking about it, when he's doing that, he's as good as I've coached."

Better still, the UK coach said, "Our kids seem to feed off Patrick when he's making shots like that."

Kentucky scored the game's first eight points and never trailed.

"When you go on the road and shoot 13 for 25 from the three-point line, I don't know if anyone will beat you," Mississippi State Coach Rick Stansbury said. "That was the difference in the basketball game right there."

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