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GAMECOCKS CHIP AWAY AT 28-POINT UK LEAD

Date story published: Thursday, February 8, 2007

Kentucky's 95-89 victory over South Carolina last night stirred the comic in Coach Tubby Smith's soul. He evoked belly laughs from reporters in his post-game news conference. He smiled. He chuckled. He flashed his wit. He poked fun. He brought absurdist humor to a basketball setting.

But he wasn't happy.

Barely 24 hours after Smith lamented anew his team's inconsistency, Kentucky tried to squander a 28-point lead. Led by Tre Kelley, who scored a career-high 36 points, South Carolina got as close as five points in the final seconds.

Smith noted -- again -- how UK has trouble with prosperity. He -- again -- cited poor execution, this time observing how the Cats became "very nonchalant."

He saw missed layups, and South Carolina ripped the ball from Kentucky's grasp in the second half as "just total mental lack of focus and of concentration."

With No. 1 Florida coming to Rupp Arena on Saturday, the UK coach issued a warning. "We have no chance if we don't have better focus. On Saturday, it'll be a long day for us."

Smith acknowledged that he, the Cats and UK's dutiful scribes had been down this dead end street again and again.

That seemed to inspire Smith to reach for a whoopie cushion, figuratively speaking. After all, a serious discussion of the problem hadn't worked.

"Maybe I need to stop talking about it," the UK coach said. "We have great concentration. Everybody keep saying, 'Hmmm, we have great concentration and great focus.' "

When a reporter relayed how South Carolina Coach Dave Odom mentioned how teams can "lose interest" after building a big lead, Smith said, "No. We have great interest. We have great interest. Great focus. We focus for 40 minutes, 45, as long as it takes. We have the best concentration of any team in America."

Playing along, a reporter wondered what Smith saw that signalled Kentucky's slip from "great" concentration to merely "wonderful" concentration.

After a pause, a smiling Smith replied, "I never see a slip." As media laughter subsided, he added, "I'm sorry. I can't answer that question. Our concentration is always at an all-time high. We never slip, man."

With that, the UK coach turned serious.

"Jeez," he said. "I've got to laugh instead of cry."

Kentucky, which improved to 18-5 overall and 7-2 in the Southeastern Conference, seemed headed toward a repeat of the demolishing they inflicted on South Carolina last month. The Cats led 20-5 less than seven minutes into the game.

"Almost a mirror image of what happened in Columbia," Odom said. "They took our breath away early."

Kentucky led by as much as 25 points in its biggest scoring first half since the 2004 NCAA Tournament game against Florida A&M. The Cats led 50-28 at the break and Odom was happy. "I actually thought we were fortunate to be within the same county," he said.

UK's lead reached its zenith at 63-35 with 16:23 left.

Just when it seemed that Kentucky would enjoy a seamless victory (similar to the one in Columbia last month), the dreaded drought returned.

It came after the Cats took a 68-42 lead with 14:19 left. Over the next six minutes, South Carolina outscored UK 18-4. In that span, UK made only nine shots. South Carolina got close with three three-pointers.

A trey by freshman Evaldas Baniulis brought the Gamecocks within 72-60 at the 8:06 mark.

Kentucky re-established a 20-point lead with 5:41 left.

Clear sailing from there? No way. South Carolina scored three baskets in 12 seconds to close within 87-77 at the 3:01 mark. Twice in the sequence center Brandon Wallace stole a Lukasz Obrzut inbounds and scored. That prompted a UK timeout to find a way to stagger to the finish line.

Kelley nearly willed South Carolina to victory. He fed Wallace for a dunk, then hit a driving banker and a three-pointer inside the final 30 seconds. The trey got the Gamecocks within 94-89 with 5.9 seconds left.

Kentucky made just enough free throws (four of eight in the final minute) to hold off an embarrassing defeat.

"Again a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde type performance," Smith said. "Something we've dealt with regularly."

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