Vaught's Views: Smith inspires Wildcats

December 19, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LOUISVILLE - Tubby Smith may have a lost a little of his religion, but he found a basketball team.

The Kentucky coach challenged everything about his team's play at halftime here Saturday when Louisville had a 32-16 lead. Not only did the Cardinals have the big lead, but Kentucky looked tentative and unsure of itself.

"We played with no emotion," said Kentucky assistant Dave Hobbs. "We played like a bunch of girls. We backed off."

That was only part of the message Smith conveyed at halftime.

"Our staff kind of lost a little bit of our religion (at halftime), but we knew we were better than what we showed in that first half," Smith said.

He was right. Even though the Cats still were down 16 points (46-30) with 11 minutes to play, Smith's team came charging back to win 60-58 thanks to three free throws from Patrick Sparks with .6 seconds to play.


"It was a big win for them, a bad loss for us," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.

Even Big Blue fans can't disagree with Pitino about that.

Cats go on 25-8 scoring run

The Cardinals had won two straight games over Kentucky. Ironically, each time the Cats raced to a big first-half lead only to see Louisville dominate the second half. This time the Wildcats went on a 25-8 scoring run after trailing 46-30 to take the lead for the first time since the game's opening two minutes.

Sparks was the catalyst with 18 second-half points, but this was more than a one-player victory.

"I just hit the shots. Everybody played a lot better and with a lot more heart," Sparks said.

Well, everybody wearing blue and white did. Smith went to a smaller, quicker lineup after the Cardinals had dominated the rebounding and inside scoring in the first half. It didn't help Louisville that freshman Juan Palacios, who had 11 points in the first half, hurt his eye early in the second half and didn't return.

"There's not a lot we can do but give them credit," Pitino said. "We had two great wins against them and they didn't make excuses and we are not, either."

That's because the Cards self-destructed in the final 10 minutes. Francisco Garcia, considered Louisville's best overall player, had three turnovers and a shot blocked in the last 10 minutes. Louisville had just three field goals the final 11 minutes - a stretch that looked similar to the three field goals the Cats managed in the final 17 minutes of the first half.

"We were still in control of our destiny (after Palacios got hurt)," Pitino said. "We should have ended the game doing the right things, but we didn't."

Just two second-half turnovers for UK

Instead, Kentucky did, thanks partly to making just two second-half turnovers.

Sparks hit three straight 3-pointers in just over two minutes. Super sub Ravi Moss drilled a 3-pointer. Chuck Hayes blocked a shot, forced a turnover that led to a score and had an assist. Kelenna Azubuike blocked a shot.

"We did the things that championship teams do," Smith said. "Our guys didn't panic. They kept their poise and we did the things we needed to do to win."

Kentucky didn't do that at North Carolina earlier this season. The Wildcats got off to a horrible start, fell behind by a big margin and then pulled within six points in the second half. That time, though, bad shots and decisions stalled the comeback and let North Carolina pull away.

This time the Cats made almost all the right plays. The last sequence showed that. Louisville's Larry O'Bannon made two free throws with 15.2 seconds left after Hayes was called for a block on a play that Smith was so sure was a charge he had to be restrained by assistant coaches as he yelled at the officials.

Kentucky took a timeout with 10.9 seconds to play. Kentucky put the ball in Sparks' hands, but he had no shot when he drove inside. Rather than force a bad shot or pass, Sparks called a timeout with 4.8 seconds left.

Sparks gets the call

This time Sparks inbounded the ball to Azubuike, who was double-teamed in front of the Kentucky bench. However, Garcia had left Sparks to trap Azubuike. Azubuike got the ball back to Sparks in the corner. Louisville's Ellis Myles came flying through the air to stop Sparks' shot. Sparks waited, faked and leaned into Myles as he shot just before the buzzer sounded.

"It was a foul all the way. No question. I was right there," a smiling Azubuike said. "What did you think Patrick would do? Jump into him."

Whatever Sparks did, it got him to the free throw line where he hit nothing but net three times - including the third shot when he was trying to miss.

While that probably wasn't divine intervention, UK's second-half play showed the Wildcats got Smith's passionate halftime message.

"Coach challenged us at halftime. They were throwing us around," Hayes, who had six points, nine rebounds and four assists, said. "The second half we outhustled them. We played harder and wore them down.

"We stood and watched too much the first half. We tried to do things ourself instead of with teammates. We just didn't play Kentucky basketball."

The second half the Cats played the way Smith wanted and that's why Kentucky was able to turn a game it looked like the Cardinals might win going away into one of the biggest regular-season wins Smith has had at Kentucky.

"Coach won't ever say much, but we knew this was a game he really wanted," Hayes said.

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