LEXINGTON, Ky. --- Wakeup call or cause for concern?
That was the question here Sunday after No. 4 Kentucky, playing its final exhibition tuneup before tipping off the regular season, needed overtime to turn back a hot-shooting Athletes In Action squad 88-83 at Rupp Arena.
Adding disbelief to the final score was the fact that Athletes In Action had played in Colorado the night before and had been blown out in recent games against unranked Indiana (105-59) and Wright State (96-58).
Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said his team will try to take the game as a positive learning experience.
"We got a good look today and a good feel for what we need to work on," he said. "I thought Athletes In Action did a tremendous job, and obviously we had a tough time defending them on the perimeter and their 3-point shooting.
"We're trying to react to (spotting 3-point shooters) instead of acting. They're reacting after the pass is made and not really challenging shots."
More than half of AIA's scoring came from beyond the 3-point arc as the visitors drained 14 of 30 attempts. Each member of AIA's starting lineup hit at least two treys to keep the heavy underdogs close throughout.
"We wanted to be patient, and make it tough for them on defense," AIA coach Chuck Badger said. "They are still a fairly young team, except for (Tayshaun) Prince. They are a very talented team and will only get better as the season goes on."
Kentucky's largest lead was seven, coming once in the first half and again at 69-62 with 8:03 left in the game.
AIA took a 77-76 lead with 2:12 left in regulation and tied the game at 80 with 40 seconds remaining on one of Josh Hall's four treys. After UK's Cliff Hawkins missed the front end of a bonus at :08.7, AIA had a chance to win, but Damian Long's 3-pointer just past the midcourt line hit off the front of the rim.
"It would have been pretty ugly around here if we lost," Smith said with a sigh of relief.
Kentucky seized the lead on a Prince 3-pointer to start the overtime period, and hit five of six free throws the rest of the way to seal the hard-fought victory. AIA managed only a Long 3-pointer in the 5-minute overtime.
"Nobody thought it was going to be like this," Prince said. "They gave us a real good game, and I think they may have caught us a little by surprise.... But we're Kentucky. We get everybody's best game."
"To be honest, I thought we would come out here and have some fun," Fitch said. "But they gave us a game. I don't think it gave us a reality check, it just refocused us."
"I thought we kept our composure down the stretch," Smith said. "Tayshaun and Keith (Bogans) and Gerald (Fitch) all made big plays when we needed a big play. But we need more consistent play from all of our players. We need more consistent energy and effort."
And they need it soon.
Kentucky plays host to the National Association of Black Coaches Classic on Thursday and Friday at Rupp Arena. The two-day tournament features solid competition in Western Kentucky, Marshall and George Washington. The Cats open against the Hilltoppers and All-American center Chris Marcus on Thursday at 8 p.m.
"They're oming into Rupp Arena with an opportunity to make a statement," Smith said. "We've got to concentrate on getting better between now and Thursday."
Kentucky shot only 49 percent (35 of 71) against the undersized AIA squad. Playing without the injured Jason Parker and Marquis Estill, the Cats' other two post players, Marvin Stone and Jules Camara, managed only eight points and seven rebounds.
Prince led the Cats with 19 points. Fitch and Bogans followed with 18 and 17, respectively, but the trio combined to hit only four of 17 from 3-point range.
"We had open shots," Smith said. "When you make shots, you seem to be more energized... You can't allow your offense to affect other parts of your game, and that's what we did to a certain extent."
Bogans, who failed to get a rebound in UK's first exhibition game, responded with seven against AIA.
"Keith picked it up," Smith said. "He went to the boards. I was proud that he accepted the challenge."
AIA was led by Long with 19 and Derek Grimm with 17.