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WILDCATS' JOE RAISES HIS AVERAGE

Date story published: Wednesday, January 25, 2006

AUBURN, Ala. -- Joe Crawford could barely remember the last time he played the lead role in a Kentucky victory.

"When was that?" he said with a furrowed brow. "Ohio."

That was Dec. 30. "Forever ago," Crawford said.

Crawford made up for lost time in Kentucky's 71-62 victory at Auburn last night.

Crawford matched the career-high of 23 points and four three-pointers he posted against Ohio, while setting personal bests with nine rebounds and 9-for-11 free-throw shooting. "Joe was outstanding," UK Coach Tubby Smith said.

Kentucky, which won a third straight game to improve to 13-6 overall and 3-2 in the Southeastern Conference, knew about 14 minutes into the game that this would be Crawford's night.

Three-point shooting keyed Kentucky's strong half. Crawford, who had made only two of 22 three-point shots in the last six games, made all three of his attempts from beyond the arc in the first half. His back-to-back three-pointers gave Kentucky its largest first-half lead, 32-19, with 5:27 left.

"He was unconscious," teammate Bobby Perry said. "Joe is focused right now. He doesn't show a lot of emotion. That's because he's so focused."

Crawford, a career 27.3 percent three-point shooter, put his recent struggles from the three-point line out of his mind.

"I don't really focus too much on that," he said. "When the shot's not falling, I try to do other things ... anything to win a game."

Crawford acknowledged that some of his three-pointers lacked textbook form. Rather than catch a pass and shoot in rhythm, he looked to make a move after catching the ball, then reloaded for a jumper.

"I normally wouldn't take that shot," he said. "I just felt it. Coach doesn't like us to take those shots."

Smith offered no complaint.

"You want to catch the ball in rhythm," he said before adding, "Shooting is all about confidence and getting your feet set. We always say a good shot starts with a great pass."

Continued hot shooting propelled Kentucky to a 39-28 halftime lead. Coming off back-to-back 56 percent-shooting games, the Cats made 15 of 28 first-half shots (six of 10 from three-point range) in taking only their third double-digit halftime lead of the season -- their first since leading Louisville 39-24 at the break on Dec. 17. UK led South Dakota State 37-24 at halftime in the season's opener.

Auburn did not look like the league's worst-shooting team, making 10 of 20 shots in the first half. The Tigers closed within 34-28 down the stretch, but Crawford's third three-pointer and a turnaround shot in the lane by Patrick Sparks got the lead to 11 at halftime.

Auburn, 8-8 overall and, at 0-5, the only winless SEC team, stayed close with rebounding. The Tigers earned an 18-12 rebounding advantage in the first half.

But thanks in large part to Crawford, Kentucky controlled the backboards and the game in the second half. He scored UK's first five points, including a fourth three-pointer that extended the lead to 44-28 with 18:34 left.

Auburn rallied within six points twice. Each time, Crawford eased the situation. With the lead at 49-43 (and Auburn missing two chances to get closer), Crawford made two free throws after being fouled on a defensive rebound.

With the lead at 51-45, Crawford got a loose ball at the basket and scored.

All of Crawford's free throws came in the second half.

"That's been my New Year's resolution," Crawford said of getting to the foul line. "Because I'm able to do that. That's another thing I can bring to the table for this team."

Free-throw shooting hasn't been a Kentucky strength this season in quality or quantity. UK took only six free throws in the first half. Thanks to Crawford, the Cats took 24 and made 17 in the second half. Only the 34 against Louisville has been a higher total this season.

Smith linked Crawford's free-throw attempts to a growing awareness of how to play off Rajon Rondo's drives.

"With a guy like Rajon who can back you down, we should have a number of opportunities," the UK coach said. "When Rajon dribbles in, you should find the seams. He's learning to do that better. He's a sophomore. He's developing."

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