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Kentucky's grit just not enough

Date story published: Friday, March 21, 2008

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Kentucky went out in style. Specifically, its trademark style this season. The Cats competed hard, refused to be discouraged and seemingly exhausted their resources. But Marquette won 74-66 on Thursday to snap UK's streak of 17 first-round victories in the NCAA Tournament.

"I'll say it again," UK Coach Billy Gillispie said. "The hardest to work are always the last to surrender."

From beginning to end, Kentucky tried mightily. UK signaled its all-out intentions by dropping walk-on Mark Coury from the starting lineup for the more productive Perry Stevenson, a move fans had been calling for since November.

"Coach started Perry because Perry always starts the second half pretty well," Ramel Bradley said. "The last two games, we didn't start the game the right way."

UK dictated tempo (Marquette, which likes to run, had four fast-break points). UK also got scoring from -- who else? -- Joe Crawford, who equaled a career-high 35, and Bradley, who added 19.

Marquette guard Dominic James was so impressed he walked to the UK bench when Crawford fouled out with three seconds left.

"I mean, you saw the performance out there," James said. "He put his heart out there on the floor. So out of respect for him and his teammates, you know, I just told him to keep his head up and keep playing the game that he loves."

Ultimately, Marquette won with rebounding (34-26 advantage), opportunistic scoring off UK turnovers (20-6 advantage) and clutch free-throw shooting.

The latter showed the lengths to which Kentucky was willing to go to win.

Trailing 66-60 inside the final minute, Derrick Jasper fouled the poor-shooting Dwight Burke (51.2 percent on the season, 42.9 percent the last five games) away from the ball. That's supposed to be an intentional foul, as fans learned when the Cats got away with fouling Jarvis Varnado of Mississippi State earlier this season.

Before Burke missed the front end of the one-and-one, a referee said something to Jasper. "Don't make it look so intentional," Jasper said in quoting the referee.

Thereafter, Kentucky couldn't be so choosy. Wesley Matthews, who had made 21 of 22 free throws in the last five games, made eight straight in the final 31.4 seconds to seal the victory.

When asked whether pace or Crawford/Bradley or some other factor kept Kentucky close (the ultimate objective in this period of playing without Patrick Patterson), Gillispie said, "You can say a lot of things. I like to think it's about heart and determination, and those guys, whatever it takes, they make it happen."

What it took, in part, was reliance on a few.

UK (18-13) did not substitute until the 13:14 mark, when A.J. Stewart came in. UK didn't sub again until Ramon Harris' third foul brought Michael Porter off the bench with 7:02 left in the first half.

The onus was on Crawford and Bradley, who scored 55 of 71 points at South Carolina in the final week of the regular season. The two scored 21 of UK's 29 first-half points Thursday. They scored 42 of the first 49 and had the final 13 in a relentless effort to double-handedly win.

"Coach wanted me to be aggressive the whole game," said Crawford, who equaled a career-high of five three-point baskets. "I felt they couldn't guard me. I just felt they couldn't guard me off the dribble."

UK didn't plan for Crawford and Bradley to shoulder the scoring load. "I'd say it sort of turned out that way," said Stevenson, who accounted for 10 of the 12 points not scored by the seniors. "But when you run offense through guys like that, it's a plus for you."

Marquette (25-9), who was a first-round winner for the first time since Dwyane Wade torched the Cats in a 2003 regional finals, took control three minutes into the second half. The Golden Eagles' two fast-break baskets (one sparked by a Crawford turnover, the other by a block of Jasper's off-balanced shot) came during a 9-2 mini-run that produced a 45-38 lead.

A baseline drive by Jerel McNeal, who led Marquette with 20 points, widened the lead to 54-43.

"Our defense has been fantastic," Gillispie said. "Today, it was much more difficult to be fantastic because it's more difficult to guard the dribbler (i.e. Marquette's ultra-quick backcourt). But I didn't think our secondary defense was very good at all. I didn't think we rotated over nearly enough."

Kentucky competed at its normal high level. Six Crawford points in 28 seconds quickly made it a game again. The Cats got as close as 56-53. Then James hit a clutch three-pointer (his only trey of the game) to set the stage for the clutch free throws.

In the locker room afterward, Crawford buried his crying eyes in a towel. Harris pulled his warmup top over his head to hide the tears.

"I don't like seeing a losing locker room," Gillispie said in the hallway before adding, "But there's no losers in there."