Vaught's Views: Azubuike's game may pay off in long run

January 29, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - This was not a game that Kelenna Azubuike will probably want to remember, but it could have been one that will shape the final two years of his collegiate career.

The Kentucky sophomore forward had one of his worst shooting games of the season - 3-for-10 - and scored only eight points for the No. 5 Wildcats in their bruising 71-61 victory over Mississippi here Wednesday.

The Cats had a lot of brighter stars in this game than Azubuike. Senior Antwain Barbour broke out of a season-long shooting slump to hit four straight 3-point shots in his best offensive performance of the season. Senior Erik Daniels continued to defy the odds inside by scoring a career-high 24 points on 9-for-12 shooting. Chuck Hayes, coming off a superb offensive game at Notre Dame, limited Mississippi star Justin Reed to 6-for-20 shooting. Point guard Cliff Hawkins had eight assists and just one turnover. Guard Gerald Fitch grabbed a season-high eight rebounds.


"A lot of guys did good things for us," said Azubuike. "I had shots. I just didn't make them."

He's right. He was only 3-for-10 from the field, including 0-for-4 from 3-point range. Azubuike entered the game shooting 52.4 percent overall and 45 percent from 3-point range this year. Yet Mississippi's plan was to make either him or Barbour hit 3-pointers rather than let Daniels or Hayes dominate inside.

When Azubuike couldn't hit shots, the Rebels backed off him even more, something they couldn't do with Barbour after he hit two 3-pointers in the first half.

"They saw I was missing and did the same thing we would do - they let me shoot," Azubuike said. "I love the shots I was getting. I got to take a lot of shots, but they just would not go down. I finally got some easy buckets on dunks, but I just had to keep playing."

And he did. That's why this game could be so important in the future.

Kentucky coach Tubby Smith was sick because of a bout with the flu. Some might have even thought he was delirious for having Azubuike, a player not known for his defensive prowess, guarding Aaron Harper, Mississippi's second-leading scorer.

"Coach Smith probably would not have had me on him a year ago," Azubuike said. "But I've improved a little bit defensively."

He did a more-than-adequate defensive job

He can still get better, but he's improved enough that he did not get beat to the basket and he had the muscle to keep Harper from knocking him around. Harper still scored 19 points on 6-for-12 shooting, but Azubuike did a more-than-adequate defensive job in his 22 minutes of play.

"I was just glad coach Smith had enough confidence in me to let me guard him," Azubuike said. "He's the one who calls the shots and lets you know how you are playing."

Smith had no complaints about Azubuike's play other than his missed shots. He did have three turnovers, but Hayes had six, Daniels four and Fitch three also.

"He at least attempted good things," Smith said.

Fitch knows about shooting woes. He was just 3-for-9 from the field and is only 12-for-44 from the field in his last four games.

"A game like this helps you handle it better the next time you go through it," Fitch said when asked what Azubuike should have learned in this game. "You are not always going to shoot well. Once you've been here, you find that out. But when your shot is off, you still can find ways to help the team win."

Azubuike didn't let missed shots keep him from playing defense or staying involved in the offense. He was aggressive, not hesitant, when he had shots and never had the look that he feared failure.

"It's a team game. It's about more than just me," Azubuike said. "You can't let missed shots impact the rest of your play or then you are hurting the team even more."

As well as Barbour shot and played, Kentucky needs Azubuike's scoring. Remember, Barbour had just 10 3-point goals in 45 games before finding his shot Wednesday. Maybe Barbour will become the consistent scorer everyone at UK has been waiting for him to be, but Azubuike is a career 41 percent shooter from 3-point range and 51 percent shooter overall.

He's no one-game wonder, but he is just 3-for-18 from 3-point range in UK's last seven games. Does that mean he's in a shooting slump going into Saturday's game at Vanderbilt?

"I ain't saying that," Azubuike said. "There's nothing really wrong. My shot is not broke. I'm fine. My confidence is not hurt. It's no big deal. I just missed some shots I should have made, but we did win."

And hopefully he learned lessons that will help him even more the next time those shots aren't falling.

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