And when the University of Kentucky played their annual home game in Freedom Hall on Friday night, a dogfight is just what they got. But after 40 minutes of nail biting, Cats fans were able to exhale when Rajon Rondo penetrated to score and Patrick Sparks delivered a clutch 3-point basket with little over a minute to play helping the Wildcats to edge out the undefeated (7-0) Gaels 73-67.
"I thought he had a very solid all-around game with seven rebounds" coach Tubby Smith said of Sparks. "He didn't score a lot of points, but he only took three shots. People are really pressuring him, but he's given us a lot of stability at the point. We're allowing Rajon [Rondo] to roam and have a lot of freedom. I thought that was really a key."
The game was sloppy throughout, with multiple starters from both squads sitting much of the first half in foul trouble. Though the Wildcats dished out 16 assists, they had trouble with their passing, turning the ball over 17 times.
Kentucky shot 48% from the floor on 30-63 shooting, but struggled with the deep ball connecting on just 29% on 21 attempts from behind the arc. Rajon Rondo led the way with 13 points on 6-12 shooting. Joe Crawford scored 12 and Rekalin Sims pitched in with 11. They were the only other Wildcats to reach double figures.
The frontcourt of Kentucky followed up their impressive performance against Louisville with a combined 33 point contribution to an offense that has lacked an interior presence for much of the first half of the season. But when UK needed a basket the most they turned to emerging superstar Rajon Rondo.
Defensively, Kentucky held Iona to just 41% shooting from the floor, but the Cats were torched from the 3-point line. The Geals shot 47% from downtown converting 7-15 perimeter shots.
Iona's Steve Burtt, Jr. entered the contest as the nation's 3rd leading scorer, trailing only Adam Morrison of Gonzaga and JJ Redick of Duke with 24.9 ppg. "They are a great defensive team," Burtt said, "They guarded us close, closer then we are used to be guarded. We just had to work with what we have and they did a good job." Foul trouble limited Burtt's touches in the first half, but after intermission he caught fire finishing the game with 23 points. This marked the 9th time in the last 10 games that Burtt scored 20+ points.
"We lost to a very good basketball team," Iona coach Jeff Ruland said, "I'm proud of our guys for not giving up. I don't think we played our best basketball game. I think it was a combination of Kentucky defending us and the layoff we had between games. We can play better than we did tonight. This game was great experience for us. It was a great atmosphere out there."
Kentucky improved their record to 8-3 as players take the next 4 days off to be with their families for the holiday season. The players report back to Coach Smith on Dec. 27 to resume preparations as the Cats host the Ohio Bobcats, another top mid-major program, on Dec. 30.
Iona, who had upset 23rd ranked Iowa State earlier this year, suffers their first loss of the season, falling to 7-1. They will take on Seton Hall on New Years Eve.