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Cats mastering the great escape

Date story published: Thursday, February 7, 2008

AUBURN, Ala. -- When it comes to getting itself untied and off the railroad tracks before the metaphorical train squishes the body, Kentucky's just showing off now.

The Cats beat Auburn 66-63 Wednesday night with perhaps their most indispensable player tied behind their back. Ramel Bradley, who played all but one minute in January and missed only one clutch free throw all season, did not play.

His absence and Auburn's ballhawking, especially down the stretch, contributed to a season-high 24 Kentucky turnovers.

Yet Kentucky somehow prevailed to extend its winning streak to a season-best four games. The Cats, who improved to 11-9 overall and 5-2 in the Southeastern Conference, made no secret of their desire to win without all the drama.

"I wish," said Patrick Patterson, who scored 19 points and grabbed eight rebounds. "I wish we could make one boring. Just blow out (an opponent) and kill them."

The Cats, who won at Georgia last weekend without their senior leaders down the stretch, acknowledged the good fortune. "The ball's bouncing our way right now," said Joe Crawford, who led UK with 20 points (and, alas, six turnovers).

After touting the good practices and highly favorable trends going into the game, UK Coach Billy Gillispie acknowledged his surprise.

"I can't believe we didn't perform better," he said. "I definitely didn't know what the result of the game would be, but I definitely thought we'd perform better."

Kentucky, which also played without Jodie Meeks, won after nearly squandering a nine-point lead inside the final four minutes.

The Cats turned the ball over five times down the stretch, and on four of five possessions against Auburn's suddenly effective pressing and trapping.

"I wish we could have played the whole game like we did in the last five minutes," said Auburn Coach Jeff Lebo, whose team fell to 12-9 overall and 2-6 in the SEC. "Our double teams bothered them and forced them to play tentatively."

If Auburn had shot better (34.8 percent in the second half), Kentucky might have lost.

"They definitely smelled blood when they started trapping us," Gillispie said. "I don't know if we ever threw it out of one trap successfully in the last three or four minutes."

Auburn got as close as 64-63 when sophomore DeWayne Reed took the ball from Crawford and made a layup with 23.8 seconds left.

After Ramon Harris made one free throw, Reed launched a potentially game-winning three-pointer from the top of the key. It missed.

"That dude was bold," Patterson said. "He wanted to go for the win rather than the tie. I respect that."

The first half played to form. Thanks to Patterson, UK got the best of it around the basket. Auburn used its quickness to stay close and pester the Cats.

Patterson scored 12 first-half points. The freshman showcased a variety of moves around the basket: jump hooks, drop steps and once a shot fake that elevated the defender out of position.

Given that the defenders included 6-foot-4 Frank Tolbert, who Lebo said earlier in the day was really 6-2, Patterson figured to have his way. As the half unfolded, Auburn concentrated more of its defense on Patterson. In particular, one defender played off Harris to keep a closer eye on Patterson.

But Auburn's quickness took a toll. Unfortunately for Kentucky, it resulted in foul trouble in a vulnerable area. Derrick Jasper and Michael Porter each picked up three first-half fouls.

The quickness also contributed to 11 first-half turnovers for a UK team that had been averaging only 13.8 giveaways in SEC play.

"People on the perimeter definitely got shook a little because we didn't reverse the ball quick enough," Gillispie said. "We stood around in the high post too much. Patrick worked extremely hard (to post up). When we did reverse the ball, it wasn't on time."

Inside strength allowed Kentucky to take its first double-digit lead, 56-46, with 10:02 left. The lead was 62-53 on Crawford's putback of his own miss with 4:28 left.

The drama intensified.

"We knew it was coming ..." Gillispie said of Auburn's pressure. "Hopefully, we learn from our mistakes. And hopefully we don't repeat them again in our lifetime."