Wildcats squeak by Ohio, get much deserved rest

Published: Monday, January 6, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 11:24 p.m.

CINCINNATI - Louisville. Tennessee State. Alcorn State. Ohio. Four games in eight days were a blur for No. 20 Kentucky, which had barely enough left at the end.

Now, coach Tubby Smith has a few restful days to take stock of a team that's still trying to forge an identity.

The Wildcats (9-3) looked like two different teams Saturday in an 83-75 victory over Ohio that started as a blowout, then had thousands of fans in Kentucky blue squirming.

Erik Daniels had four clutch baskets down the stretch to prevent Ohio (3-6) from pulling off the upset. But Smith was more than a little upset with how his team went flat as soon as it got a 19-point lead.

``He was disappointed that we lost the lead, and he let us know about it,'' said Cliff Hawkins, who made two free throws in the closing minutes.

Smith had a theory. In the last eight days, the Wildcats lost to Louisville, drubbed Tennessee State and Alcorn State, then looked good while pulling away from Ohio.

``I was pleased with our effort after playing four games in the last eight days,'' Smith said. ``We were getting a bit fatigued in the second half, and that gave us problems on defense. We were getting leg weary.''

Actually, they were getting outplayed by a team that might finally be starting to play up to expectations. The Bobcats were one of the Mid-American Conference preseason favorites, but hadn't played like it until Saturday.

After missing all five of his first-half shots, Brandon Hunter led a second-half comeback that got the lead down to 78-75 on his driving basket with 55 seconds left.

Daniels then rebounded his own miss and put it back in, and Keith Bogans had a three-point play - part of his 21-point game - that ended the game but not the Bobcats' newfound optimism.

``We showed some courage and heart, coming back to get it down to three,'' coach Tim O'Shea said. ``I'm coaching a much better basketball team now than a month ago.''

Hunter and Steve Esterkamp - two Cincinnati natives - had 18 points apiece, and Sonny Johnson led Ohio with 24. Hunter started the comeback by asserting himself inside and getting his teammates inspired.

Ohio outrebounded Kentucky 26-12 in the second half, getting 14 offensive rebounds.

``If we bring this effort every night, we'll be OK,'' said Hunter, who had 16 rebounds. ``Everybody's starting to get an understanding of what it takes to win. At the beginning of the season, we didn't understand what it's like to have a target on your back.''

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