- Wednesday, March 1 2006 -
Kentucky - 80 (Head Coach: Orlando Smith) - [Unranked]
Tennessee - 78 (Head Coach: Bruce Pearl) - [Ranked 11th by AP and 11th by ESPN/USA Today]
|Chris Lofton (*)||33||5||9||3||7||2||2||0||1||1||1||2||2||0||0||15|
Halftime Score: Tennessee 45, Kentucky 38
|Prior Game|||||Next Game|
|Louisiana State 67 - 71|||||Florida 64 - 79|
Game Writeup - Written by Matt May; Courtesy of The Cats Pause, (All Rights Reserved)
UK delivers for 80-78 win at Tennessee
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. Ð Tubby Smith ran from the floor slapping violent high-fives with a row of Kentucky supporters. Ravi Moss yelled in a burst of pent up emotion while teammates streamed off the bench to jump around in a group bear hug.
Think this game didn't mean the world to a team searching for something Ð anything Ð to hang its tenuous NCAA Tournament hopes on? The Cats gave themselves a gigantic shot in the arm with a scintillating 80-78 victory over SEC East champion Tennessee in front of 24,108 orange-clad fans at Thompson-Boling Arena. It was a desperately needed win for a team in dire need of a tournament resume builder, but it took every ounce of pride and heart the Cats could muster.
"To go on the road and win a game like this is a big feather in our hat," UK coach Tubby Smith said. "This was big for the mental status of our team. This was a tremendous game and a tremendous win for us."
Given UK's struggles all season long to produce clutch plays in tight games, their inability to knock off the top four teams in the SEC and a wild roller coaster of emotions throughout the year, the triumph was shocking in the intestinal fortitude the Cats had to display to leave Knoxville as victors.
The Cats looked dead in the water midway through the first half. Feeding off the emotion of a full house and Senior Night activities, Tennessee got off to a blistering start and dropped a 19-2 run that left the Cats on the wrong end of a 21-7 deficit less than eight minutes into the game. It was a familiar scene (think Indiana, Kansas and Arkansas), but with a team as talented as Tennessee things did not look good for the listless boys in blue.
"We took their best shot," senior guard Brandon Stockton said. "We never got worried. Coach (Smith) told us to stay poised and we'd be okay."
True to Smith's words the Cats began to whittle away at Tennessee's lead behind the inspired play of sophomore center Randolph Morris. The 6-foot-10 Morris poured in 14 of his game-high 22 points in the first half, nearly single-handedly keeping UK within striking distance of a Volunteers' squad that made 14 of their first 20 shots.
Once in the locker room at halftime Smith made two critical adjustments. First, UK was going to pound the ball inside to Morris as often as possible after watching the Vols' defense look incapable of slowing him in the post and second, Smith made the decision to turn sleek point guard Rajon Rondo loose in a spread offense.
"We made some adjustments (at half) because they weren't guarding the ball screen very well," Stockton said. "Rajon came out and just played big. We spread the floor and made them play defense."
Rondo, who has suffered his share of ups and downs in a trying sophomore campaign, admitted that Smith's reassurances in his ability helped him find his groove in the second half, when he had 10 straight UK points and 12 of his 16 total points.
"Coach believed in me so I had to believe in myself," Rondo said. "(Tennessee) played up and our big men set some great screens for me to get open."
Rondo's slashing moves and gravity-defying array of runners and floaters came on the heels of a 45-second spell to start the second half that set the stage for UK's comeback. Morris started it by blocking Andre Patterson at the rim, which led to a Bobby Perry three, then Morris stole a post entry pass on the ensuing possession and Ravi Moss buried a three in transition to immediately cut the lead to 45-44.
From there the Cats took flight. UK hit its first eight shots of the second half before Stockton rattled out a three nearly 10 minutes into the half. The shooting deluge continued behind Rondo's drives as UK made 11 of its first 12 shots in the half on the way to 78.9 percent shooting after the break. The problem was, Tennessee kept the Cats from running away by making six three-pointers, the final one by C.J. Watson that tied the contest at 69 with 8:16 remaining.
With that as a backdrop the stage was set for another thrilling finish for the Cats, although there was certainly an air of uncertainty in how UK would handle the closing moments after five of its six SEC losses had come in the final minutes.
This time UK was not going to let a message-sending game get away.
Joe Crawford, who finished with 11 points, buried a pull-up three to give UK a 76-73 lead, then Morris dunked off a perfectly placed inbound pass from Crawford to push the lead to 78-75 with 3:28 left. After Dane Bradshaw hit one free throw for the Vols, Patrick Sparks badly missed a three but Stockton tracked down the loose rebound and passed to Rondo, who drove the lane to make it 80-76 with 2:15 showing on the clock. Bradshaw put back his own miss to close the deficit to two with 1:47 left, setting up a frantic finish.
Tennessee produced two steals on UK's next two possessions, but Rondo followed the first miscue with a sensational block on a Watson drive and then JaJuan Smith missed the front end of a one-and-one after the second steal. Crawford missed a three on UK's next possession giving Tennessee a chance at the final shot, but Stockton got a finger on the ball as Smith tried to drive then dove on the loose ball and got it out to Crawford, who was fouled with 8.1 seconds remaining.
"He was dribbling and I just got a piece of it," Stockton said. "My first instinct was just to dive on the ball and Joe was there to pick it up from me."
Crawford missed his free throw and a Morris tip rolled out allowing Tennessee to scoop up the rebound and get the ball in the hands of Watson, who rushed down the floor but back-rimmed a three as time expired.
In a strange twist, the breathtaking ending actually allowed UK to finally breath a sigh of relief, its NCAA hopes perhaps finally sealed.
Randolph Morris (#33) makes a move against Major Wingate
Rajon Rondo (#4) drives on UT's JaJuan Smith
Tennessee Crowd all decked out