Date story published: Monday, March 19, 2007
CHICAGO -- For a half, Kentucky achieved most of its pre-game objectives yesterday. But against a team as deep and talented as Kansas, that wasn't nearly enough to prevent elimination from the NCAA Tournament.
Kansas, the No. 1 seed in the West Regional, drew away in the second half and won 88-76. The Jayhawks (32-4) led by as much as 20 in the final 15 minutes.
Kentucky, which finished the season with a 22-12 record, competed much better than the last time it faced Kansas. That was the 73-46 debacle at Lawrence last season.
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However, a common thread was Kansas swingman Brandon Rush. He scored a career-high 24 against UK last season. Yesterday, he hit a career-high six three-pointers, including all four of his attempts to lead a second-half shooting blitz that blew away Kentucky. The Jayhawks made five of six three-point shots -- and 64.3 percent of all their shots -- after halftime.
"There's not much you can do when they're bombing threes like that," said UK forward Bobby Perry, who did some bombing of his own with a 21-point performance that included a career-high five three-pointers. "Brandon Rush put on a shooting clinic."
Kentucky kept it close in the first half by breathing life into its game plan. The Cats took charges, set picks and did the proverbial little things to keep in reach of Kansas, which led 36-30 at intermission.
UK took three charges (two by Jodie Meeks and one by Sheray Thomas). Three other possible charges could have been called.
Ramel Bradley and Perry were called for blocking on Kansas drives. A non-call on a collision prevented Julian Wright from scoring on a fast break.
With Kansas lacking an overpowering low-post offense, Kentucky's ability to keep turnovers to a minimum prevented a first-half knockout.
"We almost played perfectly in the first half," said Joe Crawford, who scored 12 points.
As expected, Kentucky worked through center Randolph Morris, who missed the game at Kansas last season. He scored 22 points. But he had only four baskets (two after the 18:41 mark of the first half). He earned his points by making 14 of 16 free throws.
Rush swished a three-pointer 16 seconds into the second half to give Kansas its largest lead to that point, 39-30. The shot signaled a quick start for Kansas, which made eight of its first 12 shots. Rush led the way by making his first three three-point attempts.
"I don't think he has had a game where he has been on a roll like he was today," Kansas Coach Bill Self said of Rush. "He has made four in a game or three in a game. But for him to make six out of seven -- that came at key times, really -- gave us a lot of momentum (and) they were backbreakers for Kentucky."
Kansas made 39 percent of its three-point shots this season (a healthy 42 percent in Big 12 play). But Rush's shooting represented a new vista. No Kansas player had made six three-pointers this season.
Rush's fifth three-pointer -- and third inside the first five minutes and 15 seconds of the second half -- put the Jayhawks ahead 54-40 with 14:46 left.
"We had no answer for Brandon Rush," UK Coach Tubby Smith said, echoing his reaction to the 6-foot-6 sophomore's play against the Cats last season.
The lead grew to as much as 20 with 4:53 left.
"They just hit open shots, and they didn't stop," Crawford said of the Jayhawks. "When they saw us slip, they looked to kill."
After scoring easily on a turnaround jumper from the low post over Kansas center Sasha Kaun, Morris battled a rotating number of trapping defenders the rest of the game. Perimeter help for Morris didn't come. Crawford, Bradley and Meeks -- UK's second, third and fourth leading scorers after Morris -- made a combined 8-for-31 (5-for-18 from three-point range). Each scored a basket after Kansas built the 20-point lead. Way too little, too late, Bradley conceded.
"Kansas is a tough team," he said. "They didn't become a No. 1 seed for no reason."