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IONA CUTS LEAD TO THREE BEFORE CATS CLOSE DOOR

Date story published: Saturday, December 24, 2005

LOUISVILLE -- Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith likened last night's 73-67 victory over Iona to a test.

"An excellent test," he said. "We were able to pass this time."

Smith gave the Cats an A for effort and rebounding, but less flattering grades for ball security and decision making.

"They showed they're capable of beating anybody anytime," Smith said of Iona. "Especially us tonight."

Turnovers and questionable shot selection gave Kentucky's eighth victory in 11 games an exciting finish.

UK nearly frittered away a 12-point lead in the final five minutes. Guard Rajon Rondo simply wouldn't let the Cats lose.

Playing hometown hero, Rondo scored four of his team-high 13 points down the stretch. Plus he fed Patrick Sparks for the game's biggest shot: a three-pointer that finally put away Iona inside the final 90 seconds.

"I look up at the score and see how (the opponent) is making a run," Rondo said of his knack for clutch play. "My teammates, I think they expect me to make a play."

Smith expected Rondo to come through and expressed his appreciation.

"He's an intelligent player," the UK coach said. "He's gifted enough, he can make those plays. When the ball's in his hand, usually something good will happen."

Intelligent play eluded Kentucky several times. Turnovers and ill-advised shots helped Iona twice closed within three points. More than a minute remained for a further erosion of the UK lead.

With the lead down to 68-65, Sparks swished a three-pointer from the left corner -- his only basket of the game -- to give the Cats a 71-65 lead to protect with 67 seconds left.

"I'm always ready to shoot the ball," Sparks said of his well-timed basket. "I can do that for the team. I'll shoot when it's needed."

Kentucky needed clutch plays because Iona (7-1) used its superior quickness to stay within striking distance.

Given Iona's horrid shot selection, Kentucky could hardly avoid never trailing.

"I'm proud of my guys for not giving up," Iona Coach Jeff Ruland said. "But I don't think we played our best basketball."

Iona missed its first four shots, 10 of its first 11 and 15 of its first 19.

Steve Burtt, the nation's third-leading scorer, was the chief reason. He missed seven of eight first-half shots. Ricky Soliver was two for nine, making Iona's top two scorers a combined three of 17.

"Our defense was pretty solid all night," Smith said when asked about holding Burtt to a hard-earned 23 points on 9-for-25 shooting.

Iona used its superior quickness to hang in there. That quickness contributed to 10 first-half turnovers for Kentucky. The Cats finished with 18, which matched the second-highest total of the season.

"Turnovers, that's what they do," Rekalin Sims said of the Gaels. "We fell right into their trap. Eighteen turnovers, that's definitely going to keep (an opponent) in the game."

Kentucky seemingly took control with about 12 minutes left. Six straight points built a 52-39 lead.

UK's guards figured in the mini-breakout. Crawford rebounded a Sparks three-point miss and made the putback to start the run.

UK won the rebounding battle, 42-32, a problem area much of the season.

"We really corrected that," Smith said. "I thought that was the difference in the game."

After retrieving a tipped pass, Ramel Bradley hit a three-pointer to put Kentucky ahead by 11.

With the crowd roaring, Iona's Anthony Bruin fumbled away a feed to the post. Rondo converted with a fastbreak layup set up by his hesitation dribble. That put UK ahead by 13, prompting an Iona timeout with 11:46 left.

Questionable decision-making by Kentucky helped Iona rally. In the final nine minutes, Sparks threw a fastbreak pass too high for Sheray Thomas. Ahead only 55-45, Thomas fired up his fourth three-point attempt of the season, and missed. Bradley's quick-shot from the left side was tipped into an airball.

With the lead down to 66-63, Rondo drove to a layup at the 1:29 mark.

When Burtt answered with his own driving layup, Rondo penetrated and found Sparks open in the left corner. The three-pointer signalled a victory ahead.

"What's what we work on in practice," Rondo said. "He had his feet set and he was wide open. He's going to make that nine of 10 times."

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