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Kentucky outlasts Cincy

By BRIAN LANDMAN
Published March 20, 2005


INDIANAPOLIS - Kentucky and Cincinnati, major basketball powers separated by about an hour's drive, hadn't met in 14 seasons, and fans in the region long clamored for the rivalry to be renewed.

It would be intense and riveting and memorable.

Boy, were they right.

Kentucky rode its superior depth and outlasted the under-sized Bearcats 69-60 on Saturday night before a raucous RCA Dome crowd of 40,331, a record for a first- or second-round NCAA Tournament session.

The No. 2-seeded Wildcats (27-5) head to Austin, Texas, where they face Utah in the region semifinals Friday.

Worth a long wait? You bet.

"It was a great college tournament game," UK senior Chuck Hayes said. "It was everything that it was built up to be. ... You have to give them credit, those guys can play."

So can the Wildcats.

Especially their youngsters, freshman point guard Rajon Rondo and freshman center Randolph Morris. Rondo scored 16 and had seven assists, looking uncommonly poised given the stakes of the game. The 6-foot-10 Morris, who had the advantage of going against 6-7 senior Jason Maxiell and 6-6 junior Eric Hicks, had 11 points and 12 rebounds.

"Early in the game, when Chuck and (Kelenna) Azubuike were in foul trouble, me and Randolph came to each other and said, "It's time. Let's take over the game. Let's step up,' " Rondo said.

The Wildcats, coming off an unimpressive opening-round win against another neighbor, Eastern Kentucky, jumped to an 11-0 lead and led by the same margin, 25-14, after Rondo hit a 3-pointer with 9:50 left in the opening half.

But then the Bearcats, not known for their long-range shooting, got hot from behind the arc for the second consecutive game. Guard Jihad Muhammad hit one and so did guard Nick Williams to bring their team to within 27-24. Moments later Hayes, the SEC defensive player of the year, and Azubuike picked up their second fouls and sat out the rest of the half.

UC (25-8) capitalized on a younger UK lineup and took a 35-33 halftime lead. But the Wildcats opened the second half with a 9-2 run that began with a Hayes steal and assist on an Azubuike fastbreak layup.

But just when UK seemed poised to pull away, the Bearcats would hit a big shot. They finished the game shooting 51 percent, the first team to shoot better than 50 percent against the nation's stingiest bunch all season.

Back and forth. Up and down. Both teams going full tilt until UC, which relies on essentially six players (the five starters each played at least 33 minutes) began to wilt.

With his team clinging to a 62-59 lead, Rondo, who may not have made it across midcourt in 10 seconds, tried to lob a pass to Morris. The ball hit the rim, bounced straight up and allowed Morris to catch it and score for a 64-59 lead with 3:56 left.

"I give Randolph credit for sticking with it; he didn't give up on it," Rondo said.

"We were running a play where Chuck drew the defense to the strong side, and the weak side was open," Randolph added. "It hit the rim but it just happened to fall in my hands, and I converted it. I think there was more of a momentum shift to our side (after that)."

The Bearcats didn't hit another field goal.

"We didn't make shots because they wore us out," said UC coach Bob Huggins, whose team lost in the second round for the seventh time in the past nine years. "But I can't say enough about our guys' effort."

"It was a heck of a game," echoed Kentucky coach Tubby Smith. "I thought our guys showed a lot of heart and toughness against a team we have a lot of respect for."

UTAH 67, OKLAHOMA 58: Justin Hawkins scored 20 and 7-footer Andrew Bogut had a career-high seven assists to lift the the Utes to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1998.

The Sooners shot 32 percent and, except for a 2-0 lead to start, trailed the entire game and got no closer than seven during the second half.

The Utes made their first five shots, including consecutive 3-pointers by Marc Jackson, in taking a 14-2 lead. Bogut, the potential No.1 pick in the NBA draft, hardly touched the ball. He had two points and eight rebounds at the break.

Oklahoma rallied to get within four while the Utes turned the ball over on four consecutive possessions. But Utah ended the half with a 10-5 run, including six by Hawkins, to lead 30-21.

"I don't understand our start," Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson said. "We had a lot of good looks. Too many balls stayed on that rim and didn't go down. I felt like we could hurt Utah with our pressure, but you have to make shots. We just didn't."

Information from Times wires was used in this report.