Vaught's Views: Wildcats know how to win

January 15, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

It's time to quit looking at all the shortcomings Tubby Smith's team has and start focusing on one thing - the Wildcats just keep winning.

Maybe they make too many turnovers. Maybe they don't always shoot well from the field. Maybe they get tired. Maybe there is not enough depth. Maybe the rebounding is suspect at times. Maybe the team lets way too many leads slip away.

But Kentucky just wins.

Smith said his team was "lucky" to beat Mississippi State 67-66 Tuesday in its first Southeastern Conference road game. While he was right that Kentucky did get a break that allowed Erik Daniels to score the game-winning layup, there was nothing lucky about why UK won.

Defense is a big reason why the Wildcats are now 11-1 and have gone 4-1 against ranked opponents this year.

Mississippi State shot 46.2 percent from the field, but was just 7-for-22 from 3-point range. The Bulldogs got several easy baskets on follow shots and several more in transition. But against UK's half-court defense, the Bulldogs struggled just like most teams have this season.


Teams apparently are not used to seeing the type of suffocating defense the Cats play. UK led 10-2 at the first media timeout Tuesday. The Cats have now limited their last seven opponents to three points or less at the first media timeout, which occurs about four minutes into the game.

A winning mentality is another plus for the Cats. Smith's team just seems to have a knack for making the right play at the right time.

The biggest play Tuesday was not Daniels' shot. Instead, it came 2.9 seconds earlier when point guard Cliff Hawkins got on the floor to force a jump ball after teammate Gerald Fitch had the ball knocked away from him.

If Hawkins had not forced a jump ball, State would either have run out the clock leading 66-65 or gone to the foul line to ice the victory.

Instead, the alternating possession rule - which does penalize good defensive plays like the one Mississippi State made in this situation - gave the ball back to Kentucky and set the stage for Daniels' heroics.

Hawkins' play was not as dramatic as the clutch 3-point shot Fitch hit to secure an earlier win over North Carolina, but it was just as important.

The win over Mississippi State, which was 13-0 coming into the game, should be a huge boost to UK's psyche. Remember that road wins at Tennessee and Vanderbilt last year that got Kentucky on a roll that eventually resulted in a 26-game win streak.

Losing an 18-point lead and then turning what looked like a certain defeat into a win should give this team even more confidence.

Kentucky has now won 21 straight SEC games and every time it looks like Smith's team might crumble, UK wins again.

Smith's team may not always look fluid on offense, score as many points as some other teams or have marquee players that are known nationally or destined for NBA stardom. However, UK is 37-2 in its last 39 games and no other team in the country can match that mark.

So instead of worrying about all the things the Cats do wrong, just remember that winning is what counts, and that's what Smith's team does better than anything else.

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