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Webb snares Cats

Date story published: Thursday, November 8, 2007

With almost four minutes left, fans began slowly filing out of Rupp Arena.

No more hope. No more New York. Maybe no more honeymoon for new Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie.

Gardner-Webb, a school with an enrollment of 4,000 and an even more modest basketball profile, thoroughly outplayed UK last night. The Runnin' Bulldogs won 84-68 and never trailed in denying Kentucky a much-coveted -- maybe too coveted -- trip to New York City next week for the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic semifinals and finals.

"Everybody was looking forward to the New York trip," freshman Patrick Patterson said. "No one thought much of this team. Everybody was focused on New York and Connecticut and Oklahoma and Memphis. The teams up there. This game, we didn't really bring it like we should."

Gardner-Webb Coach Rick Scruggs and his players spoke of believing they might beat Kentucky by attacking Kentucky. But more tellingly, the program had scheduled games next Tuesday (North Greenville) and Saturday (Radford). No wonder Scruggs, who coached at Pikeville College earlier in his career, called the victory "beyond my wildest dreams."

Of the 61/2-hour bus ride home last night, Scruggs said, "It'll probably be the first time in 30 years I'll wish the trip lasted longer."

The outcome might have shocked UK fans, who vented their frustration by booing more than once. But it shouldn't have. Gillispie all but predicted the night before that this might happen. After UK beat Central Arkansas in Tuesday's first round, he held out Gardner-Webb as the kind of team -- emphasis on TEAM -- that could expose the Cats' lack of cohesion.

As if to prove Gillispie a prophet, both teams played to those roles.

"I'm not into self-fulfilling prophecy," Gillispie said before calling Gardner-Webb "definitely the hungrier team."

Earlier this week, the UK coach vowed that his Kentucky team would never be the hunted and would always be the hunter. "That goes out the window," he conceded. "The guy to blame for this is me. No question about it. It's all on my shoulders."

Gardner-Webb scored the game's first 14 points, led by as much as 16 early and took a 38-27 halftime lead. The Runnin' (and thinkin') Bulldogs played with one purpose and repeatedly got good scoring opportunities. Backdoor cuts nullified UK's pressure defense. Old-fashioned scrappiness netted other scoreboard rewards.

At times, the Cats looked like the same disjointed team that so frustrated former coach Tubby Smith and the fans in recent seasons.

UK found the final score misleading. "On court level, it felt like we were killed by 40 or 50 points," Patterson said. "Everybody is extremely (ticked) off."

Gardner-Webb took immediate charge of the game. Grayson Flittner, a 6-foot native of Sharpsville, Ind., who led the state in scoring as a senior and then walked on the Gardner-Webb team because his girlfriend played on the women's team, scored 22 points. He hit a pair of three-pointers in the 14-0 run.

Thomas Sanders, who was home schooled until college and came to Gardner-Webb through an "Availables Game" designated for unsigned junior college players, added 21 points and 10 rebounds.

Kentucky responded with too many solo flights of fancy, none more unsightly than Joe Crawford's leaning, one-handed flip shot that evoked thoughts of a YMCA pickup game. The air ball stood in contrast to his 20-point performance against Central Arkansas.

Even when UK tried to coordinate its approach, the result failed miserably. Perry Stevenson threw a high-low pass to Patterson that banged off the backboard. Gardner-Webb scooped up the loose ball and zipped to a fast-break layup. It was the second straight fast break (the first created by Bradley's forced shot on the drive) that stalled a UK rally, which had reduced the deficit to 28-21.

Two possessions later, Gardner-Webb deflected and retrieved a Patterson high-low pass for Stevenson. That caused a UK fan to yell, "C'mon Patrick, dumb pass."

The second half failed to bring immediate relief. Gardner-Webb beat Bradley and Crawford on backdoor cuts for layups. When Bradley responded by launching a quick three-pointer that missed, Gillispie leaned back in his seat and put his hands behind his head. His body language suggested he'd left the building.

When Gardner-Webb ripped a rebound from Stevenson and zipped to a fast-break layup, the lead reached its zenith, 49-31, with 15:07 left. More boos could be heard.

Freshman Alex Legion gave Kentucky renewed hope midway through the half. He hit three straight three-point shots. The Cats closed within 58-50 when Bradley hit two free throws at the 7:48 mark. Plenty of time to complete the comeback.

As if poetic justice, Gardner-Webb used a pretty play -- Linn's touch-pass to an open Flittner at the arc -- that resulted in a three-pointer to begin a 9-1 counter that decided the game.

For UK fans with a good memory, it was familiar. In 1991, another relatively new UK coach, Rick Pitino, expected to take the Cats to New York in triumph. But Pittsburgh sprung the upset one game shy of the Big Apple.

UK fans booed that night, too.

When asked whether he heard the boos, Gillispie said, "I don't think you couldn't hear it. We deserved it. We play like that, that's what we should get."