Wildcats continue to claw through league
Published: Friday, January 16, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 16, 2004 at 12:53 a.m.
There are no signs of slippage in Lexington, Ky. No marks against the mystique. No reason for fans to bury themselves underneath the bluegrass.
Kentucky held its stranglehold on the class of the Southeastern Conference with a last-second escape in a nationally televised ESPN game at Mississippi State. The one-point win on an Erik Daniels layup at the buzzer extended Kentucky's winning streak to 21 straight conference games.
The streak dates back two seasons - 22 months. Kentucky last lost a conference game on March 8, 2002, against South Carolina in the opening round of the SEC tournament.
"It's an extraordinary feat," Georgia coach Dennis Felton said. "They are who they are because of their approach to the game. They defend, they rebound and they compete with great intensity. It's something we aspire to."
Added Cliff Ellis, the dean of SEC coaches and Auburn's head coach for nearly 10 years: "You can go back to the (former UK coach Adolph) Rupp era, but I don't think that you would find 12 teams in the conference that concentrated on basketball the way they do now. To win 21 straight games in the conference in this era is unheard of. I just hope their fans appreciate it."
Much of the praise also was heaped on Tubby Smith, who has coached Kentucky to 11-1 and a No. 5 ranking in the country. Smith is doing it with an undersized front line and a lack of depth that could come back to haunt them in March.
What's carrying the Wildcats now are four savvy, experienced starters, led by senior Gerald Fitch, whose five 3-pointers against the Bulldogs helped Kentucky build a 16-point second-half lead.
"The thing about Kentucky that has made them dominant the last two years has been their experience," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "You're dealing with players that not only have talent but that have been through situations that maybe other players haven't been."
A broad-shouldered Chuck Hayes, 6-6, is playing at power forward. Daniels, at 6-8, is playing center because freshman 7-footers Lukasz Obrzut and Shagari Alleyne haven't progressed enough to crack the starting lineup.
If there is a potential weakness, it's the bench. Kentucky starters looked tired in the final three minutes. Mississippi State outhustled Kentucky for loose balls and outworked them for offensive rebounds.
The 16-point lead evaporated. Mississippi State could have closed out the game in regulation had they not missed two front ends of one-and-one free throws in the final 30 seconds.
"It's wearing down our players," Smith said. "We'd like to get more people in the game and keep the pressure on teams. I'm starting to get confidence in Bernard (Cote) and Ravi (Moss). I think you'll see us work more people in there as the season progresses."
Kentucky visits Florida on Feb. 3. The teams will then close out the regular season March 7 in Lexington.
After Mississippi State guard Timmy Bowers swiped the ball away from Kentucky guard Gerald Fitch in the closing seconds, Bowers dove for the loose ball, only to get tied up by Kentucky point guard Cliff Hawkins.
Kentucky retained possession on the arrow, even though Mississippi State forced the near-turnover. Kentucky then called time out with 2.1 seconds left, enough time for Smith to draw up the game-winning shot.
When asked about his views on a potential rule change, Mississippi coach Rick Stansbury said: "You're asking the wrong coach that right now, that's for sure. We made a great defensive play and got no benefit from it."
ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale also pointed out the need to change the rule in the closing seconds during the network's broadcast.
"The defense gets penalized for a great play, and the offense gets another chance after making a mistake," Stansbury said. "It just seems to me like they should toss it up in that situation."
So far, they are two teams going in surprisingly different directions. Alabama, expected to struggle after three early NBA defections the past three seasons, improved to 1-1 in the conference after an 81-65 win against Arkansas. Auburn, a Sweet 16 team last season with three starters returning, dropped to 1-2 with an overtime loss at home against South Carolina.
Alabama is 9-4 overall, having tested itself in a non-conference schedule that included wins against Oregon and Wisconsin. The Crimson Tide are getting solid inside play from sophomore Chuck Davis and junior Earnest Shelton, which has helped offset the losses of Kenny Walker and Erwin Dudley.
"The remarkable thing that they have done is bringing the big guys along through their non-conference schedule," Ellis said.
Alabama coach Mark Gottfried downplayed his team's start.
"We've only won nine games," Gottfried said. "I didn't know if it would come this soon. I said before the season we'd be lucky if we'd win 10 the whole year, and I still don't know if we will. We'll just see how it all plays out."
The six teams are: Kentucky (3), Florida (6), Alabama (14), LSU (17), Vanderbilt (18) and Mississippi State (25).
Kevin Brockway can be reached at 374-5054 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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