- Friday, March 17 2006 -
NCAA Washington D.C. Regional First Round (at Philadelphia, PA)
Kentucky - 69 (Head Coach: Orlando Smith) - [Unranked]
Alabama-Birmingham - 64 (Head Coach: Mike Anderson) - [Ranked 25th by AP and 25th by ESPN/USA Today]
Halftime Score: Alabama-Birmingham 33, Kentucky 30
|Prior Game|||||Next Game|
|South Carolina 61 - 65|||||Connecticut 83 - 87|
Game Writeup - Written by Matt May; Courtesy of The Cats Pause, (All Rights Reserved)
Cats blaze past UAB
PHILADELPHIA - All the pregame talk centered on Kentucky trying to exact some measure of payback on UAB for a NCAA Tournament loss two years ago, but all the Cats really wanted was to live to play another day.
UK made sure of that, overcoming poor shooting and the foul trouble of center Randolph Morris to hold off UAB for a 69-64 victory in front of 19,999 fans at the Wachovia Center in South Philly.
The Cats (22-12) rendered UAB's vaunted 40 minutes of full court pressure virtually useless, turning the ball over only eight times - including once in the second half - to take away the Blazers' most effective weapon.
"We did a great job controlling the ball," sophomore guard Ramel Bradley said. "The coaches over prepared us. They were tenacious about it. The game was actually a little easier."
UAB never could goad the Cats into the frenetic pace it loves to play. UK coach Tubby Smith put the ball in quicksilver point guard Rajon Rondo's hands for most of the night, allowing him to isolate against the pressure and use only forwards Bobby Perry and Sheray Thomas to help him advance the ball up the court. The result was UK turning the ball over less than any team had all season long against the Blazers, and ultimately allowed the Cats enough possessions to overcome 31.1 percent shooting for the game.
"We just wanted to be patient," Rondo, who did not commit a turnover, said. "They want you to force it and scramble so you have to be patient. All we had to do was get it in bounds.
"Early in the week we practiced 5-on-6 (defenders). That's a great coaches' decision. (UAB's press) was not too difficult."
With the ball handling under control, UK was free to play more of a halfcourt game and avoid falling into UAB's strengths. After allowing the Blazers to control seven of the game's first eight rebounds the Cats ended up posting a 47-38 edge on the glass, including 20 offensive boards that led to 12 points, but more importantly slowing the pace and controlling the ball.
UK still had plenty of work to do though, especially after shooting just 24.2 percent in the first half (8-of-33) and finding itself down 33-30 at the break. Part of that could be traced back to guard Joe Crawford getting poked in the eye and missing the final 15:28 of the half, as well as the foul troubles of Morris. Still, UAB rarely got out in transition or make the Cats pay for their first half shortcomings.
"We couldn't get it going up and down the way we wanted to," UAB guard Squeaky Johnson said. "They had great spacing on the floor and that was key. They only had eight turnovers. We usually create turnovers and get easy buckets off that, so give them credit for (not turning it over)."
Of course, every player in UK's locker room should bear hug Perry, who turned in a career-night in a game where most of his teammates were struggling offensively. Perry poured in a career-best 25 points, marking only his sixth double-figure game of the year, and added seven rebounds. Perry scored 19 of those points in the second half and connected on all 10 of his free throw attempts, but it was his third three-pointer of the game with 5:32 remaining that pushed UK's lead out to 61-56 and help ease the pressure of a possession-by-possession game.
"I've never felt this feeling before," Perry said. "Maybe high school, but never in college and definitely not on this stage, the NCAA Tournament. I was just feeling it."
Perry's efforts, including a run of nine straight points early in the second half, offset a horrific shooting night by the rest of UK's starters. Rondo, Morris, Crawford and Patrick Sparks connected on just 7-of-32 from the field, but were saved by Perry's 6-of-10 shooting night.
"Perry, Perry, Perry," Bradley said. "He was definitely our MVP. Without him we are not going to the next round."
Perry was so hot, UAB's Johnson walked by him at one point before he shot free throws and asked if the junior forward was going to miss at all. Perry responded with a succinct 'Nope.'
"(Bobby) was 3-of-4 on threes, got some big rebounds and putbacks, made all 10 of his free throws," Sparks said. "He really, really helped us."
Perhaps most importantly it proved UK has learned from the lessons of a tough season. Earlier in the year the Cats might not have been able to survive a game where their big guns misfired so badly, but the maturity level has changed down the stretch.
"I'm not sure if we could have won this game earlier in the year," Sparks said. "We've had a lot of them like this one and we learned from our mistakes."
With final exams now upon them, those lessons are finally coming into play.
Rajon Rondo (#4) shoots past UAB's Derrick Broom
Bobby Perry (#13) was the star of the game for the Wildcats