Date story published: Sunday, December 17, 2006
LOUISVILLE -- Randolph Morris went to the bench with two fouls barely four minutes into the game. After sitting the rest of the half, he logged all of 34 seconds of the second half before picking up his third foul.
Back to the bench went Kentucky's leading scorer and rebounder. With Louisville off to a good start and a big crowd eager to celebrate, it seemed his foul trouble also sidelined UK's chances of winning.
"We're like, 'Wow,' " guard Ramel Bradley said. "We planned on having him right now. We had a lot of plays we were going to run to get it to this guy."
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Yet Kentucky beat Louisville 61-49 yesterday.
Credit defense. The Cats held poor-shooting Louisville to the second-lowest point total in Rick Pitino's six seasons as coach.
Credit depth. A sudden star turn by freshman Jodie Meeks, who had career highs with 18 points and four three-pointers, compensated for Morris' cameo role. Other reserves filling the void included Lukasz Obrzut, Sheray Thomas and Michael Porter.
When asked whether he would have expected victory with Morris reduced to irrelevancy, associate coach David Hobbs said, "No way. A lot of guys stepped up today. This is the kind of win you can build on."
Kentucky (7-3) trailed 6-0 to start the game and 7-4 when Morris picked up two quick fouls guarding Louisville center David Padgett. When he went to the bench, Morris had no points and no rebounds, and he had touched the ball twice (each bringing the anticipated aggressive trapping defense).
The circumstances led Hobbs to think of the gathering storm at Louisville two years ago that blew away Kentucky.
"Six minutes into the game, we were beaten already," he said.
A different story unfolded at North Carolina earlier this month. The Cats showed an ability to shake off adversity.
"What happens sooner or later is the game turns to substance," Hobbs said. "A lot of times, it's emotion early. In the long run, as long as you don't get beat by emotion," victory can be achieved.
Despite Morris' absence, Kentucky led 27-24 at the half. The starters accounted for six of UK's points.
Louisville (5-4) sensed opportunity lost.
"Those Kentucky players are out, and we're only up 9-6," Terrence Williams said of the Cardinals' lead more than nine minutes into the game. "It should have been easy. We should have been up 25-6."
Louisville didn't shoot well enough to build such a lead. The Cardinals' season-low 27 percent accuracy marked their first game under 30 percent since a 71-46 loss to Texas Christian on Feb. 17, 2004.
Kentucky didn't burn the nets (41.7 percent), but the Cats got a bonanza of points from Meeks and timely contributions from other players.
"It's not a matter of if Randolph Morris is not having a (good) game," UK Coach Tubby Smith said of the reserves. "It's a matter of being ready when the opportunity presents itself."
Meeks, who had scored eight points in the previous three games, had nine first-half points. None seemed bigger than a three-pointer that reduced Kentucky's largest first-half deficit: 16-9.
The Cats took their first lead when Obrzut hit a 15-footer with 6:04 left. Obrzut made three shots in the half, his first baskets since the Maui Invitational. He came into the Louisville game having made four baskets this season.
The second half began on a sour note for Kentucky.
After taking his first shot (a missed foul-line jumper on a fast break), Morris picked up his third foul and went back to the bench 34 seconds into the half.
This time, Bradley, who finished with 15 points, steadied UK by scoring seven straight to give the Cats their largest lead up to that time, 36-29, with 16:38 left.
Except for Meeks, both teams struggled to put the ball in the basket. From 10:43 until 4:00, the freshman from Norcross, Ga., was the only player to score. He hit two three-pointers and three free throws, putting Kentucky ahead 49-41 with 6:36 left.
"I thought we had to wear them down," Smith said of UK's bench play. "That's the way we practice, and that's the way I coach. I believe guys are on the team for a reason. Because they can help us win basketball games. And they stepped up and produced."