- Saturday, February 26 2005 -
Kentucky - 78 (Head Coach: Orlando Smith) - [Ranked 5th by AP and 5th by ESPN/USA Today]
Alabama - 71 (Head Coach: Mark Gottfried) - [Ranked 16th by AP]
Halftime Score: Alabama 36, Kentucky 29
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Game Writeup - Written by Matt May; Courtesy of The Cats Pause, (All Rights Reserved)
Sparks rolls Tide
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. Ð Kentucky had heard all the excuses and doubts. The Cats can't shoot, can't score enough, aren't big enough and had beaten just one ranked team all season.
The Cats muzzled all their critics by storming into perhaps the most hostile environment of the year against a starting lineup UK coach Tubby Smith said was the best in the Southeastern Conference and dominating the final 20 minutes for the signature victory they needed.
When the dust had settled at Coleman Coliseum, the Cats had erased a 10-point second half deficit and emphatically upended Alabama 78-71 before a sellout crowd of 15,316 fans. No one in the building was as hot as UK's Patrick Sparks though, as the junior hit seven three-pointers and scored 26 points, his high water mark as a Cat.
For a team trying to reach its potential, the comeback victory could be just the injection of confidence UK needs heading into the postseason.
"We'll get respect," junior Ravi Moss said. "This was a great win for us to come down here to this type of environment and fight back and win.
"We didn't win the SEC title last year and that was our motivation. It was us against the world and we came out on top."
The Cats celebrated their 43rd SEC championship Ð and seventh in the past 11 years - when the final horn went off, but it was how UK got to that point that made the victory that much sweeter. Trailing by as many as 14 points in the first half and an even 10 with 16 minutes remaining, UK stormed back behind a barrage of three-point shots and defensive adjustments to ruin Alabama's party and end the Crimson Tide's 13-game home winning streak.
"We just got intense," junior Kelenna Azubuike said. "We pulled together and had that mental toughness. At the half, Coach (Smith) got on us and everyone rallied together."
UK certainly needed an emotional spark at the break. Alabama was dominating play behind Chuck Davis in the paint and Kennedy Winston's four three-pointers, pushing out to a 33-19 lead late in the half. But the Cats set the stage for their comeback by finishing the first 20 minutes on a 10-3 run to cut the lead to just 36-29. In the final minute, Moss battled for an offensive rebound and cored on a putback and then Rajon Rondo stripped Ronald Steele at halfcourt and converted a dunk to pull UK within striking distance.
"It was good because (the lead) was 14 at one point," Smith said. "To get that momentum at the half is always important. That was a big steal by Rondo.
"When we are trailing at the half we always let our guys know that the most insignificant score is the halftime score."
The halftime soul searching worked for UK, who rallied for the sixth time after trailing at intermission. The Cats spun their wheels until just before the first media timeout, falling behind 47-37 on a wide-open Kennedy Winston three-pointer.
That's when the torrid shooting began. Ramel Bradley's triple from the top of the key ignited a 21-6 run by UK, turning the 10-point deficit into a 58-53 lead with 7:41 remaining. The rally picked up steam at the 10-minute mark when Sparks hit the first of his four three-pointers down the stretch, culminating in a 70-62 advantage with 3:04 left when Lukasz Obrzut flushed a Rondo feed in transition.
Sparks, who had taken the brunt of recent criticism, did his best Reggie Miller impersonation during the game-changing turn of events. Sparks splashed a three from the wing at 9:17, nailed a NBA-length triple from the top at 7:41, hit another from the top at 6:30, drilled one from the wing off a screen at 4:54 and capped the outburst with a leaning bank with 4:09 remaining.
"It's a good feeling when you know its going in before you shoot it," Azubuike said of Sparks. "When he does that, he does it with a bunch of threes. That three-ball is deadly when you hit them back-to-back-to-back.
"You could see it in (Alabama's) faces when he hit them. They could see it was slipping away."
As the game slipped through the Tide's hands like sand in an hourglass, UK was making a statement. Forget what you've heard, this edition of the Cats wants everyone to know its ready to roar.
Lukasz Obrzut and Ramel Bradley pressure Alabama's Jermareo Davidson
Patrick Sparks shoots while defended by Alabama's Kennedy Winston