Coach Rick Stansbury didn't have to look at the stat sheet to confirm why his team lost, either, as he paraphrased straight from the Ron Polk quotebook. "Shooting is contagious, and Kentucky got contagious." And it was the Bulldogs left feeling sick on their home court.
The baker's dozen of three-pointers was not the most surrendered by State this season, as on December 10 visiting Troy made 17 treys in 45 tries. But then Kentucky only had to fire it up 25 times from the arc to do their damage. "I don't know what percentage that is," said center Charles Rhodes, "but when a team's shooting like that they can beat anybody."
The box score Rhodes didn't have credited Kentucky with 52% accuracy at the arc, far better than the 34% the Bulldogs had allowed in their previous seven league contests. Wildcat guard Patrick Sparks was the top Kat, throwing in five threes (in ten attempts) for 15 of his game-best and season-high 25 points. Backcourt partner Joe Crawford had four longballs of his own and finished with 14 points, while guard Ravi Moss came off the bench for two more treys. Even forward Bobby Perry got into the outside-act with one made-trey.
With such outside efficiency, the Wildcats didn't need center Randolph Morris to do much more than keep at least one Dog in the paint. In fact UK's starting big man was only on the court 15 minutes, with six points. His smaller, faster, and better-shooting teammates were more than sufficient to the evening's task. And while he didn't attempt a shot from more than ten feet out, point guard Rajon Rondo turned on a beautifully balanced evening of nine points, eight assists, and seven rebounds.
"Give Kentucky and (Coach) Tubby Smith credit," said Stansbury. "When you go on the road and shoot 52% from the three-point line you'll beat anybody." The Wildcats weren't much worse closer-in, making 49.2% of all their shots. Of course the way he shot it, Sparks seemed to be batting more like 80%.
He was certainly perfect on perhaps the contest's one crucial basket. The Bulldogs, down by 13 points less than a minute into the second half, had their best surge of the game going. Guard Dietric Slater had created five quick points, then Rhodes converted MSU rebounds into baskets. By 16:36 State had pulled within 42-39 after a Rhodes dunk.
The Wildcats didn't waste time going to their hottest shot with Sparks catching the pass in the left corner, alone. "At all times you have to know where he is," MSU point guard Jamall Edmondson said. "And we lost track of him." Sparks made it matter, lofting a longball over late-arriving guard Reginald Delk that hit at 16:14. When State lost the ball on one end Crawford hit for three on the other for a nine-point margin.
"Bottom line, once we cut it to three points there were three straight possessions where they scored against our man (defense)," Stansbury said. Of course State had played a lot more zone defense, and Kentucky had no trouble shredding it either.
The Bulldogs would only get as close as five points the rest of the way, when Edmondson struck for three of his own and a 50-45 count. With the score 57-50 at 11:36 he Wildcats cinched their road win with an 11-2 surge, as big guard Ramel Bradley hit consecutive jumpers in the paint that the Dog postmen didn't come out to defend. When Sparks finished a fastbreak at 8:48 it was a 68-52 game, set, and MSU mis-match.
For that matter the Bulldogs were down 8-0 before the introduction echoes faded, as the Wildcats pumped up three quick threes over the 2-3 zone. The first missed but was boarded and dunked by Morris; the next two from Crawford were home, bringing a timeout call from Stansbury. His team did regain some poise as forward/guard Jamont Gordon attacked for consecutive layups and Edmondson pulled the trigger for a tying three. But that was just a cue for Sparks to get busy shooting.
He stuck his first trey, then got a shorter jumper to count on a goaltend call. He would hit two more perimeter bombs in the half. "They were screening away from the ball for Sparks," Edmondson said. "And he had the choice to curl or fade so it was tough to guard him. He really got into a groove, knocking down shots."
Of UK's first eleven shots, nine were triggered beyond the arc. And it didn't matter how the Dogs tried to defend as either Sparks and Crawford riddled the zone, or Rondo sliced through the man-to-man. Down nine points much of the mid-period State managed a brief run powered by Gordon and Rhodes to get within 30-26. Then Rondo tried to attack the goal directly and dunk it, only to be stuffed straight-up by Rhodes.
"We're good friends," the MSU soph said, as they pair had played in high school and AAU ball. "We were talking all through the game and he said he was going to try me, when he did I got him!" But Slater lost the rebound and UK sub Sheray Thomas made an open three-pointer. With the half running out MSU forward Piotr Stelmach mis-fired from 23 feet, leaving enough time for Perry to get the ball on the baseline, score it, and draw a foul. His free throw let Kentucky take a 38-29 lead into the locker room.
"We'd break it down to a few points and they'd just come down and shoot it," said Rhodes. "It hurt sometimes." For his part Rhodes caused most of UK's pain, with 21 points and 11 of State's 34 rebounds. He was credited with three blocks and seemed to get a hand on a couple more shots. "Charles was a man on the inside," Stansbury said. Edmondson finished with 15 points, all on longballs, while Gordon had 15 himself along with eight rebounds. But the Wildcat bench out-scored their homecourt counterparts 19-2.
"I was proud of our kids effort, I thought we played extremely hard," Stansbury said. "That doesn't mean we always played extremely smart." But the Dogs did for the first time in SEC play balance turnovers with assists, 11 for 11. After a seventh-straight setback the State side was eager to see any sliver of silver.
But as far as getting back on the light side, there's only one cure now. "We've got to get us a win," said Rhodes. "I'm tired of losing."