- Tuesday, January 17 2006 -
Kentucky - 69 (Head Coach: Orlando Smith) - [Unranked]
Georgia - 55 (Head Coach: Dennis Felton) - [Unranked]
Halftime Score: Kentucky 35, Georgia 32
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|Alabama 64 - 68|||||South Carolina 80 - 78|
Game Writeup - Written by Matt May; Courtesy of The Cats Pause, (All Rights Reserved)
Holy Sparks! Guard's revival lifts Cats
ATHENS, Ga. Ð Patrick Sparks landed in the laps of teammates Preston LeMaster and Adam Williams on the Kentucky bench, bounced back up with his right wrist cocked and a smile splashed broad across his face.
The Cats Sparks plug was back to firing and when his three-pointer over an on-rushing Georgia defender touched nothing but twine, the Cats had put an emphatic stamp on the end of a three-game losing streak. UK had survived a sticky road test and emerged with a renewed swagger on the strength of its 69-55 victory in front of 10,027 fans at Stegeman Coliseum.
All along, UK had talked about Sparks being the key to this team's fortunes and it showed when the senior guard finally started sticking jump shots. Sparks' 12 points signaled the first time he had broken double-digits since Georgia State on Dec. 6 and the his four made field goals the only time he had connected on more than one in seven games.
"It brought back old memories," Sparks said. "This was great. I'm all about winning and when we win, we're all happy."
On paper, the match-up of UK's floundering offense and Georgia's rough-and-tumble defense didn't seem to favor the Cats. Struggling to execute much of anything over the better part of a month with Coach Tubby Smith questioning their toughness, the Cats responded with its best shooting performance of the season in knocking down 56 percent from the field.
"It's not even close," Smith said. "It was by far the best we've done all year. We were a lot more patient. We maybe found ways to capitalize. We executed extremely well.
"We are building on the positive things. We made shots. We got stops. We were being more aggressive, not backing down. All of that contributes to more self-esteem."
It could have gone the other way though. UK came out in mostly zone defense and the Bulldogs buried four three-pointers within the game's first seven minutes to bolt out to an 18-8 lead. Given the Cats' recent struggles, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for them to wilt.
Not this time. Reserve guard Ramel Bradley popped off the bench to score seven of UK's next 10 points to get the Cats right back into the game and even take a 20-19 lead. By halftime the advantage had grown to 35-32 and there was a noticeable bounce in the Cats' step.
"Ramel gave us a big lift in the first half," Smith said. "That was a point when I couldn't allow any doubt or any negative thoughts to creep in."
After Georgia went back ahead 36-35 at the start of the second half, Sparks got rolling for the Cats. He nailed a three-pointer from the right wing off an inbound play to make it 38-36, then buried a pull-up jumper in transition to push the lead to 42-38. Both jumpers played a critical role in an 8-0 run by the Cats that gave them a working margin in the second half.
Sparks said he went to his teammates before the game in a meeting and apologized for the way he had been playing and asked them for their support in helping him get back on track.
"Maybe a little," Sparks said of losing his confidence. "I hadn't been taking shots I should have been taking. I know this team needs me to step up and play like I did."
The change was apparent from the moment Sparks hit his second jumper.
"You could see a smile," Smith said. "You could see the confidence start to swell. He needed a game like that. We wanted to let him know we believed in him and that support comes from everyone."
The good vibes showed in the final 10 minutes, when UK used a reckless technical foul on Georgia's Billy Humphrey to key 15-4 run. The Bulldogs had just cut a nine-point deficit to four when Humphrey stripped Bobby Perry and dunked on the break, but he was assessed a technical foul for slapping the backboard. Sparks buried the Cats' two technical free throws, Bradley hit a driving floater in the lane and Sparks hit a short baseline jumper to push the lead back to 10 and start the celebrating.
"Any win after three losses is critical, but we've got a good group of guys and we pulled together," Bradley said.
As for Sparks, well, UK is fully aware of how important he is to their performance.
"Patrick is a wonderful player," sophomore center Randolph Morris said. "When he makes shots, we are just that much more dangerous."
Ramel Bradley tracks down the ball while Rajon Rondo watches from afar
Joe Crawford seals the victory with a dunk