Wednesday, January 16, 2002

SULLIVAN: Cats keep changing stripes




By Tim Sullivan
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LEXINGTON, Ky. — Schizophrenia is in season here in Wildcats country.

        Kentucky can't seem to get its story straight. Sometimes, the Cats are so good it's scary. Sometimes, the Cats are so flat it's frightening.

        Sometimes, they reveal split personalities in the same game.

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        Tuesday's 87-64 mauling of Mississippi was both tantalizing and a tease. For the better part of the first half, Tubby Smith's basketball team played the kind of defense that causes claustrophobia. For 12 amazing minutes, the Cats challenged every pass, contested every shot and blocked more field-goal attempts than the visitors made.

        They put the Miss in Mississippi. First they cut off their passing lanes, then they cut off their air — suffocating the Rebels with paralyzing defensive proximity.

        It was 24-5 before the Rebels sank their second field goal, a span that included 7 minutes and 15 seconds without a single Ole Miss point. This one was over before the fashionably late had settled into their seats.

        Raise hopes, questions

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Mississippi's Derrick Allen gets rejected by Kentucky's Marquis Estill.
(AP photo)
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        It was the kind of effort that will revive Final Four expectations in the Commonwealth. But it will also make Big Blue Nation wonder about the funk that befell their team after its epic overtime loss last month to Duke.

        “It gives us a glimpse of what we can accomplish and what we can do,” said UK forward Tayshaun Prince, “if we carry over what we do in practice to how we play.”

        Prince knows better than to declare UK's dominance. Ten days before Tuesday's tipoff, the Cats took a 21-2 lead at Mississippi State, only to lose the game in overtime. That, too, was a glimpse of greatness. This time, though, the Cats sustained their effort longer.

        “Individuals play the game and defense wins championships,” Smith said. “We kind of got away from that because we were putting some points on the board

        Freshman forward Chuck Hayes credits UK's return to defense to Smith's personal perspiration.

        “The last few practices, Coach Smith has been sweating as much as we have,” Hayes said. “He has been out there on the floor playing with us. That has a lot to do with our intensity.”

        Smith's Wildcats have a variety of weapons, but they are at their best when they are fueling their fast break with steals and defensive rebounds. When Cliff Hawkins and Gerald Fitch can dictate tempo and Prince is getting good looks on the perimeter, the Cats' transition game can be transcendent.

        “I think a lot of (UK's) offensive problems have come because of their defensive problems,” Mississippi coach Rod Barnes said. “I knew Coach Smith was going to get on those guys and that we were going to be in for a tough night scoring-wise.”

        One tough night

        Tough? Mississippi missed 15 of its first 16 field goal attempts and 15 of its 18 3-point attempts. You see better shooting when they pull a kid out of the crowd for the chance to win a pizza. The kid, of course, doesn't have to shoot with a hand in his face.

        “We know we can score, but we have to find a way to stop the other team,” Hawkins said. “I think our defense destroyed some of their cutting and moving and we wore them down.”

        Now comes the tough part: Can UK duplicate this defense?

        Contact Tim Sullivan at 768-8456 or tsullivan@enquirer.com.
       



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