Date story published: Thursday, November 16, 2006
For long stretches, fans might have wanted to cancel Kentucky's reservation for Maui. Another island in the Hawaiian chain -- Molokai, once reserved for outcasts -- might have seemed more appropriate.
Yes, UK struggled in its opening game while beating Miami (Ohio) 57-46 last night. Emphasis on "opening game," meaning there's plenty of time for improvement this season even with more serious competition coming next week in the always top-notch EA Sports Maui Invitational. And plenty of improvement to be made.
UK Coach Tubby Smith grumbled about stagnant offense, porous perimeter defense and too many turnovers.
UK fans grumbled, as new point guard Ramel Bradley acknowledged.
"It's tough," said Bradley, who committed six of UK's 12 turnovers. "We know how much our fans love us. The thing we want to do is make them proud. When we don't, it hurts us."
A hurting look was on Bradley's face. UK did not make its fans proud.
When the giant "K" flag made its customary appearance deep in the second half, it generated only tepid applause.
Maybe most discouraging was Randolph Morris picking up a foolish fourth foul, reaching in for a rebound already secured.
That came with 7:52 left, the foul call bringing the timeout when UK cheerleaders unfurled the K flag.
Morris, who achieved the third double-double of his career (12 points and 10 rebounds), put the game in perspective.
"You can't really tell who's going to win the national championship in the first game ... ," he said. "The first game is great to get under your belt. It's really not going to have an effect on the outcome of the season."
Freshman Perry Stevenson repeatedly came to the rescue. He blocked seven shots to keep Miami at bay. The seven blocks tied the UK record for a freshman (Andre Riddick in 1991-92) and were the most by any Cat since Riddick blocked seven against Arkansas in the 1994 Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Yet Miami (0-2) closed to within 47-46 at the 4:49 mark. Then Bradley hit what he called a "Chauncey Billups" clutch fadeaway to ease the tension.
Joe Crawford led UK with 18 points. Morris and Bradley added 12 each.
Nathan Peavy led Miami with 17 points.
Kentucky trailed much of the first half. The Cats were down by as much as 10 points early and didn't take their first lead until Crawford hit a three-pointer with 1:09 left. A switch to zone defense and more pressing turned the game to Kentucky's favor.
During the first 16 minutes, UK displayed a stagnant offense. When Bradley dribbled seemingly aimlessly midway through the half, grumbles could be heard.
"They were doing a good job bodying us," Smith said. "We didn't really have a counter: the back door.
"Early on, we weren't setting any screens at all. Against good teams, if you don't set screens, you're not going to get open."
At the other end, Miami shot Kentucky out of what figures to be its signature man-to-man defense. When the Redhawks weren't driving for layups, they were drawing help defense and feeding teammates for open jumpers.
As the second half began, Miami seemed intent on putting a third foul on Morris. The Redhawks drove on him on their first three possessions. Morris foiled the strategy by cutting off a drive, contesting a driving shot without fouling and getting help from Stevenson, who came over to block an attempt.
Meanwhile, Morris scored three of UK's first four baskets to help the Cats extend the lead to as much as 37-27.
But the third foul came with 15:43 left, sending Morris to the bench and changing the complexion of the game.
A Miami tip-in narrowed the UK lead to 39-36 with 12:33 left.
UK credited the victory to its defense. Miami made four of 25 second-half shots. "What we had to do because we weren't scoring," Smith said.
To Miami Coach Charlie Coles' eye, the Redhawks saw a lot of makeable shots that didn't go in rather than smothering defense.
"I never looked at it like we couldn't score," he said. "I was thinking, 'Oooh, we're in the game.' "