CINCINNATI --- Having spent the last week turning Kentucky practice sessions into WWF-like events, Tubby Smith got the result he desired Wednesday as a tougher breed of Wildcats topped Kent State 82-68 at the Firstar Center.
Kentucky limited the Golden Flashes to a stingy 42 percent (22 of 52) from the field, held a decisive 43-26 rebounding advantage and earned plenty of floor burns in the process by way of diving to the court for loose balls and stepping in to take numerous charges.
It all added up to the finest performance of the young season for the 13th-ranked Cats (3-1).
"Those are areas we've been concerned about ever since our loss to Western Kentucky," Smith said of his squad's intensity and toughness. "We did much better with them tonight, but that's the type of effort we need every night."
Kentucky was led by Keith Bogans and Marquis Estill, each with 19 points. The Cats also got double-figure scoring from Tayshaun Prince (17) and Cliff Hawkins (12) in a balanced effort.
Estill and Hawkins did their damage coming off the bench.
"We have a very talented team, and when we go to the bench, we should improve," Smith said.
A junior forward, Estill was 7-for-11 from the field, 5-of-6 at the line and added six rebounds and four blocked shots to an impressive final line. And one thing the box score didn't reflect was two charges taken.
"That definitely got the team pumped up," Estill said. "I don't think they're used to me taking charges."
"He did a fantastic job," Smith said. "He had tap-ins, blocks, drew charges. That's what we have to have from our post people when they're capable. We tell them all the time that good is not good enough when they're expected to play a lot better."
Hawkins, a sophomore point guard, established a new career high for points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field. Not noted as a long-range threat, he also hit both of his 3-point attempts.
But it was his ball handling and execution at the point (6 assists, 2 turnovers) that drew the highest praise from his coach.
"I was really impressed with Cliff tonight," Smith said. "Cliff really did a super job tonight taking care of the basketball, running the offense and playing good, aggressive, solid defense. That's what we need out of our point guard."
"Practices haven't been too uplifting," Hawkins joked. "Coach has been on us pretty hard about our intensity and getting the ball up and down the floor. We wanted to push it tonight and make them guard us on the other end."
Early on, it appeared Kent State (3-2) may be primed for an upset. The Golden Flashes, who were ranked No. 15 in Sports Illustrated's preseason edition, held leads of 15-7 and 25-18 as Kentucky was plagued by 10 early turnovers and a cold shooting start.
Consecutive tip-ins by Estill got the Cats on the comeback trail just inside of the eight-minute mark. Kentucky closed the half with a 19-10 spurt --- including five points from Hawkins --- to take a 37-35 lead into the half.
Kent State hung within one point through the first three minutes of the second half before the Cats put the game away with a 17-5 run. Hawkins got the key spurt rolling with a short jumper off the drive, and Estill added six points in that span as Kentucky took a 59-46 lead with 10:43 left.
The Golden Flashes, who got a game-high 22 points from junior forward Antonio Gates, pulled within eight on two occasions down the stretch, but could get no closer.
Trevor Huffman and Demetric Shaw added 18 and 16 points, respectively, for Kent State. The Golden Flashes helped their cause by hitting 20 of 24 at the foul line, but uncharacteristically made only four of 15 from beyond the arc.
Kentucky shot 47 percent (30 of 64) from the field and held a 25-5 advantage in second-chance points. Bogans and Estill each had six rebounds to lead the Cats, who had eight players with three or more boards.
"Our defense just broke down in the second half," Huffman said. "We gave them three and four shots on some possessions, and there's no way you can beat a team like Kentucky giving that many shots."
"This game is a step in the right direction for us," Prince said. "With every game, I see us getting better."