Wildcats ready for matchup with Blazers

March 21, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Offense won games for both teams Friday, but Kentucky and Alabama-Birmingham expect defense to play a much bigger role in today's NCAA Tournament second round game.

UAB outscored Washington 102-100 after Kentucky raced to a 60-52 halftime lead in its 96-76 victory over Florida A&M.

"Don't count on us giving up that many points again," said Kentucky point guard Cliff Hawkins. "UAB is going to have to work for everything it wants to get against us. I don't know if they have seen defense like we are going to play."

Kentucky coach Tubby Smith knows his team has not seen a defense exactly like what the Blazers will use. Coach Mike Anderson took over at UAB last year after spending 17 years as an assistant at Arkansas under Nolan Richardson, who prided himself on his pressing, aggressive defense.

"We are a team that can play well in an up-tempo game, but we are concerned with all the weapons Mike has at his disposal," Smith said. "They are going to bring 40 minutes of intense pressing and attacking on both offense and defense. They can all put the ball on the floor and beat you off the dribble, but they are just as unique defensively. They really create havoc with their defense."


"The main idea is to make a team uncomfortable," UAB guard Mo Finley said. "We want them to rush what they are doing."

Florida A&M was successful doing that the first half Friday. The Cats insisted Saturday they learned their lesson.

"We learned that we cannot let a team dictate the pace of the game," Kentucky senior Erik Daniels said. "That's not what we've been doing all year. It's not wise to start doing something different now because even though we were scoring a lot, they were scoring right back."

Finley is one of four fifth-year seniors that helped the Blazers (21-9) reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999. Finley's scoring average dropped from 18.3 points per game last season to 13.5 this year, which is still the best on the team in Anderson's balanced system.

"We've already exceeded all the expectations from our fans and from the media," said Finley, who had 20 points in Friday's win to give him 1,509 in his career. "But we still feel like we are capable of a lot more."

The Blazers showed that when they lost only 86-84 at Mississippi State Dec. 6 when Finley scored 38 points, including UAB's final 17 points, in just 29 minutes of play. Kentucky needed a last-second goal by Erik Daniels to win 67-66 at State.

"(Finley)'s small, but he's developed strength. He's quick, but he's not a jet. He's a self-made player," said UAB assistant Scott Edgar, a former head coach at Murray State.

"He can light it up. We have to contain him," Daniels said.

The Blazers went 5-7 this season going into the NCAA against teams that made the NCAA field. They lost 73-55 at Louisville Feb. 7 and fell 78-62 to LSU Dec. 27. The Wildcats lost 65-56 to Louisville and beat LSU 70-64.

UAB leads the nation in steals at 11.7 per game and also ranks among the nation's best teams in field goal percentage defense (42.2), assists per game (17.5) and scoring (74.5).

Sophomore forward Demario Eddins, who had a career-high 26 points against Washington, adds 9.8 points and 4.7 rebounds per game for the Blazers while Gabe Kennedy, a senior forward, contributes 11.4 points and a team-high 5.5 rebounds.

Anderson has 12 players averaging eight or more minutes per game.

The Blazers did give up 48 points in the paint against Washington.

Daniels said that could benefit him and Chuck Hayes, who had his 13th double-double in Friday's win.

"We've been inside-oriented most of the year, but Washington also got a lot of inside points off penetration," Smith said.

Anderson said it should be an "exciting game" and a learning experience for his team.

"Kentucky is an outstanding team. It will be an interesting matchup," Anderson said. "I just want our guys to play and have fun. Either way, we'll learn something about ourselves."

Finley seems convinced the Blazers can win even though UK is the No. 1 overall seed in the tourney and UAB is only a No. 9 seed.

"There's just something about winning that's unlike any other feeling I've ever experienced," Finley said. "It's a great feeling when you win, whether you win by one or 101. Losing right now probably is the worst feeling ever, when you don't have another game to play. That's why even though people may look at us as the underdog, we still think we can keep winning.

"I am a pretty confident guy. I feel we can play with anybody and hopefully we will show people that have not seen us play just how well we can play."

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