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SPARKS GLOWS ON THE ARC

Date story published: Wednesday, November 23, 2005

KANSAS CITY -- During Kentucky's shoot-around practice yesterday, Coach Tubby Smith vented. Hours later, and after the soothing tonic of an 80-66 victory over West Virginia, Smith was a bit calmer, saying simply that the Cats "dribbled the air out of the ball" looking to make plays in the Monday loss to Iowa.

No more, Smith demanded. Pass the ball!

"Coach was really harping on passing," said Ravi Moss, one of two new starters on a night typified by change.

When asked why UK had been dribbling too much heretofore, point guard Rajon Rondo said, "Maybe it was selfishness. Maybe we were looking for our own shot. Tonight we didn't."

The Cats passed to the open man against West Virginia and, not coincidentally, shot a season-high 54.5 percent.

"We didn't play well at all (against Iowa)," Moss said. "We didn't play Kentucky basketball."

UK did against West Virginia, thus taking a 3-1 record and upbeat spirits into Friday's game against Liberty.

"We brought some thanks to this Thanksgiving," Moss quipped. Yes, Kentucky got some consolation from the third-place game of the Guardians Classic.

Guard Patrick Sparks was the prime benefactor of the one-for-all approach. He scored 25 points, surpassing the 18 he'd totaled in Kentucky's previous three games and coming within a point of his high as a Cat (26 at Alabama last season).

"We played together better," said Sparks, who tied a Guardians Classic record and matched his career-high with seven three-pointers. "I think that was the biggest difference.

"It takes some time to find everybody's role and what Coach wants from everybody."

Kentucky looked renewed from the start. Smith went small, giving Bobby Perry and Moss their first career starts in place of slumping Joe Crawford and alternating 7-footers, Lukasz Obrzut and Shagari Alleyne, at center.

Freshman Jared Carter's 10 minutes represented UK's only high-altitude contribution. His putback while being fouled put UK ahead 33-23 late in the half and earned him a standing ovation from the cluster of Cat fans behind the bench.

Primarily a man-to-man team, UK played a matchup zone for most of the first half en route to a 33-26 intermission lead.

"I thought the best way to eliminate (WVU's signature backdoor cuts) and to help our guys would be to try to zone them," Smith said. "We were still using man-to-man principles."

West Virginia struggled shooting over the zone. The Mountaineers missed 13 straight shots in one stretch and finished the half 3-for-19 from beyond the arc.

"I think it frustrated them a little bit," Moss said.

Sparks agreed: "I think it shook them up a little bit."

West Virginia Coach John Beilein saw "very good shots" that missed.

"Then they got in transition, so they got into their running spots," he said of the Cats. "They got their confidence back, and we lost our confidence completely.

"When we didn't make (shots) -- and that's something we haven't seen this year -- I think we panicked just a bit."

Kentucky took advantage of West Virginia's misfires. The Cats ran off 20 straight points to erase WVU's 9-2 early lead and establish a 22-9 cushion.

West Virginia closed within three, 41-38, early in the second half. But Sparks hit three of his first four shots -- all three-pointers -- to propel Kentucky back to a double-digit lead.

"When you're hitting shots, you get in a zone," Perry said. "You're feeling it. You feel you can do anything on the court."

Sparks denied feeling especially hot. "I just felt regular, really," he said. "Just out there shooting like I usually do."

Unlike the Iowa game, Kentucky made the clutch plays, and Sparks repeatedly played a key role down the stretch.

Moss hit a three-pointer after West Virginia closed to 56-53. Then Sparks found Rekalin Sims on a nifty baseline pass.

Pittsnogle, who led all scorers with 27 points, hit his fifth three-pointer to close West Virginia's deficit to 63-58. Then Sparks hit his seventh three-pointer to ease UK to victory.

"I think we responded the right way after a very poor performance," Smith said. "We played with a lot more intensity and a little more energy."

Then again, he added a few minutes later, "We couldn't have been much worse than (Monday) night."

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