UK's Smith Impressed With Young Arkansas

FAYETTEVILLE – Kentucky coach Tubby Smith had shed the dark blue coat by Saturday's halftime, and we swear his hair was growing grayer.

During most of the second half, Smith animatedly barked while stalking the visitors' portion of the sideline, often loudly smacking those giant black dress shoes on the Bud Walton Arena floor for emphasis.

After taking Arkansas' best shot in his seventh-ranked team's 68-67 win, Smith shook Hogs hands, wiped his brow and strode quickly off the court.

"I'm glad we don't have to play them again this year – maybe in the tournament, but not in the regular season," Smith said.

Not sure if he was talking about the Southeastern Conference or NCAA Tournament, but the Razorbacks (14-6) keep going like they did against Kentucky, it still could be either, despite the 2-5 SEC start that now includes three heartbreakers (against Alabama, at LSU and this).

"I think they're as talented a team as we've played all year long," said Smith, whose team has faced Kansas, North Carolina and Louisville.

Seriously?

"Oh, yeah," Smith said. "Their top nine or 10 ... you're not going to find a better top 10, I don't think.

"It's just a matter of time before they start making better (late-game decisions).

"We made some clutch plays, and that's what it takes to win close games. And they've had some close calls – LSU (an overtime loss in Baton Rouge), and other games they've been right there."

Because – and some of this is amazing – Arkansas outrebounded Kentucky (37-30), played swarming defense (causing 19 turnovers), took care of the ball (just 13 turnovers against trademark Wildcats pressure), consistently sank free throws (16 of 21) and held Kentucky's two best players (point guard Patrick Sparks and forward Chuck Hayes) to a combined 9 points, the Hogs were again right there.

With 5.5 seconds left and All-Southeastern Conference forward Hayes eyeing the free-throw line with Kentucky clinging to the 68-67 lead, Smith thought long and hard about calling a timeout. But he didn't want to ice his own player or give the Hogs, who had no more timeouts, a chance to spend lots of time drawing up a last-second play.

Hayes clanged the one-and-one and Arkansas' Olu Famutimi skied to collect his ninth rebound. Famutimi headed upcourt, then ran into trouble at halfcourt before dishing to guard Eric  Ferguson to his right.

Ferguson dribbled and spun toward the top of the key, launching what looked to be an on-line 3-pointer just before the buzzer.

It ricocheted off the back iron, sending Ferguson straight into the tunnel, Ronnie Brewer to the bench, where he smacked a chair, Arkansas assistant Ronny Thompson to the scorer's table (on which he almost fell), and the Wildcats into each other's arms.

"I thought it was a good look," Ferguson said. "It felt good. When it left my hand, I thought it was going in. Yeah, man, I thought it was on it.

"I thought we were going to win this game, man."

Arkansas third-year coach Stan Heath was, of course, disappointed with the loss. But not with his young team. He checked off all the main points the Hogs had covered before talking about that last shot, drawn up during a quick break for Brewer or Ferguson, whichever had the best look.

"(Ferguson) had a good shot, yeah," Heath said. "He had just made that last 3 (with 10 seconds left for 68-67) to get us back in range. He did a good job of getting open, and he probably was the guy with the legs to push it up the court and get himself in range.

"It was right on line. Back iron. But probably two inches off."

The Hogs are sick of close calls (the fact that guard Dontell Jefferson leaned back in a chair with his head in his locker for quite some time said lots), but the talk was different after this one.

"Nothing to be sorry for, nothing to apologize about," Heath said. "Our team should realize, ‘Hey, we're able to play a team like that and fight ‘em nose-to-nose.'

"Comes down to the last shot – they hit theirs and we don't hit ours. So we're a pretty good basketball team."

Said Brewer, who was spectacular (18 points, 8 rebounds), especially before twisting his left ankle with about 11 minutes left in the second half, causing him to miss three or so minutes and hampering his mobility: "We've got to go back to the drawing board, keep practicing and getting better.

"I think we can be a real good team still."

The Wildcats mostly did the right things down the stretch, despite an aggressive Arkansas defense and a packed, Hog-wild arena.

Kentucky held the ball and a 64-61 lead when Sparks found a cutting and wide-open Bobby Perry for a backdoor combo and 66-61 with 1:04 left.

"I started biting too much," Famutimi said. "That was one of the breakdowns we had down the stretch. I wish we could take that back."

Arkansas' Jonathon  Modica followed with a strong drive he turned into a three-point play, but Sparks was left way too open for the 17-footer he drilled from the right side.

"There were a few plays down the stretch we could've done a better job with," Heath said. "But there were some big-time plays we made to give ourselves a chance, too."

It was an incredible game, played out in front of an incredible crowd (20,268) and a national CBS audience.

Heath talked about being nowhere close to climbing the mountain toward basketball's elite two seasons back. Not much closer last season. Now, he said, the Hogs can see the top. They just have to get over the crest.

"Oh, man. I made this game personal on my calendar and I wanted to go out and destroy Kentucky," said brash Arkansas freshman center Darian Townes, who had 16 points, 5 rebounds and not a lick of intimidation. "We're going to have our little downs on this one. We've just got to wake up and go on.

"We know we've got a good team."

Lots do now.




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