Vaught's Views: Kentucky's offense kicks into high gear

February 26, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - This was not supposed to be the way No. 9 Kentucky wins games.

The Wildcats obtain their victories because of a relentless defense that makes up for offensive shortcomings. Going into Wednesday's game against Tennessee, no UK opponent had shot 50 percent from the field this season.

The Volunteers didn't, either, but even if they had, they still would not have beaten the Wildcats. Kentucky had its highest-scoring Southeastern Conference game of the season and rolled to an impressive 92-60 victory that was even easier than the score indicates.

Kentucky's defense limited the Vols to 38 percent shooting and forced leading scorer Scooter McFadgon, who put in 33 points against the Cats earlier this season, to shoot 14 times to get his 18 points. But that's expected from Kentucky.


What wasn't expected was UK's offensive prowess that included a season-best 11-for-19 shooting from 3-point range and the team's highest point total in over two months. The Wildcats had five players in double figures even though leading scorer Gerald Fitch played just 35 seconds because of a bout of food poisoning.

No wonder coach Tubby Smith had to admit this was his team's most complete game of the season.

"If you look at the numbers, it was probably one of our better games," Smith said. "We only had five turnovers in the second half and our young players are getting better."

True, but what really got better this game was the outside shooting. The consistent knock on UK has been its lack of outside shooting, especially with Fitch sidelined. However, seven players hit a 3-point shot and Antwain Barbour and Kelenna Azubuike were both 3-for-4 from behind the 3-point arc.

"I didn't think we had the toughness on the defensive end that we needed to take them out of their offense," Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson said. "They're not bad in their half-court offense with (Chuck) Hayes and (Erik) Daniels in the post, and when they are able to make outside shots they are hard to defend."

"We are pretty good (when we hit outside shots) because we are very solid in most other areas, especially defensively," Smith said. "We are getting better at rebounding the ball, so when we can make shots early on, it puts a lot of pressure on the opposition and it gives us a lot of energy."

No one appreciates that more than Barbour. He struggled most of the season before Fitch's injury thrust him into the starting lineup for the last six games.

He had 16 points, three rebounds, two assists and one blocked shot against Tennessee. He was 6-for-9 overall from the field.

In UK's earlier overtime win at Knoxville, he had just two points in nine unproductive minutes.

Barbour had nine points in the opening five minutes Wednesday.

"Right now my confidence is sky high," Barbour said. "If teams leave me open, I'm going to shoot."

Hawkins had another masterful game

If he's open, point guard Cliff Hawkins likely will get him the ball, too. Hawkins had another masterful game for UK. He finished with 15 points, seven assists, five rebounds, two steals and one blocked shot in 27 minutes of play.

Those numbers more than offset his three turnovers.

"Cliff is getting the ball to the right people," Smith said. "He has a good feel for when we should push the ball or set up in the half court. He's always been real disruptive on defense, but now he's really running the team well, too."

That could bode well for UK's tournament chances. There could be a game where defense won't be enough for the Cats to win.

Maybe UK will run into a team having an incredible shooting night or one that presents matchup problems it cannot contain.

If that happens, the Cats are going to need to be able to score to win.

"We are getting better offensively," said Azubuike, who had 17 points. "It's a big deal for us to shoot so well. You want to have a game like this to help your confidence. We shot well and executed the offense the way we were supposed to. We attacked the basket. Everybody contributed.

"You never know when you might need to have a game like this to beat someone. You can't just always rely on defense to win. If our defense is not stopping someone, we have to be able to score. Tonight we proved that we can score, too."

Not that UK will shoot 59 percent overall or score 92 points often, but at least the Cats did show that at least the potential is there on given nights for the offense to produce more than the 62 to 68 points than has been the norm in most SEC games this year.

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