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SEC Notebook

February 11, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments

Southeastern Conference Notebook

by Rainer Sabin

They lead the SEC in every major defensive category, haven’t lost since Dec. 28, and are now ranked in the top five. The high-flying No. 3 Kentucky Wildcats (18-3, 8-0 SEC) have found a new formula for winning, and opponents are struggling to find its antidote. Since losing to in-state rival Louisville six weeks ago, Kentucky has won 12 consecutive games and maintained an undefeated record in the SEC.

Just this past week, Kentucky dominated then-No. 1 Florida 70-55 and manhandled Ole Miss 80-62. Both victories came as a result of their oppressive defense, which has held opponents to 55 or fewer points in five conference games this season.

In Lexington last Tuesday, Kentucky stuffed the Gators, who are second in the league in scoring offense. No. 4 Florida shot 34 percent from the field and converted just six of the 30 shots it attempted in the first half. The Gators (19-3, 8-1 SEC) struggled all night to outmaneuver the man-to-man defense and the match-up zone that Kentucky implemented. After the game, Kentucky coach Tubby Smith reflected of his team’s strongest asset.

“We have been playing very good defense of late,” Smith said. “It has been a focus of ours since the holidays. We’ve just gone back to the basics, like pressuring the ball, and now that we have the full complement of players it is really coming together.” Indeed it is, and a blowout victory over the Gators means that the Wildcats have established themselves as a potential No.1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament in March.

Four days after demolishing Florida, the Wildcats traveled to Oxford to face Ole Miss (12-8, 3-6 SEC). Normally the Tad Smith Coliseum is one of the more difficult venues to play in for visiting teams in the SEC. But Kentucky was unfazed by the hostile surroundings and quickly set the tone for the game.

The Wildcats jumped out to an 11-0 lead, as they limited the Rebels to just six shots in the first eight minutes. Feeding off what seemed to be an impervious defense, Kentucky’s offense shined. Led by guard Gerald Fitch and forward Marquis Estill, the Wildcats built a 44-20 halftime lead and never looked back. Kentucky shot 58 percent from the field, while Ole Miss converted just 44 percent of the shots it attempted.

There is an old and familiar saying that applies to all sports: Defense wins championships. Right now, Kentucky seems to meet the criteria necessary to cut down the nets in April.

Tennessee is Back

After a disappointing 2001-2002 campaign, Tennessee (13-6, 5-3 SEC) has reemerged as a forceful presence in the SEC. Buoyed by the SEC’s leading scorer, center Ron Slay, the Volunteers are making a serious run for an NCAA Tournament bid. Slay, who averages 21.8 points per game and earned SEC Player of the Week honors Monday, scored 33 against No. 20 Georgia (13-6, 5-3 SEC) in a convincing 78-72 victory in Knoxville. “Ron Slay had two shots from 28 feet,” Georgia coach Jim Harrick said. “I really didn’t expect Slay to be 4-for-5 from the three-point arc. He was incredible today. I thought Ron Slay was fabulous, and he shot the daylights out of the ball.”

On the shoulders of Slay, the Volunteers battled back from a small second half deficit to defeat the Bulldogs, who have struggled to find consistency in a competitive SEC East division. Georgia has lost two of its last three games and will face Kentucky Tuesday in Lexington. Meanwhile Tennessee has won its last four games including a 71-45 blowout victory over non-conference opponent Umass last Wednesday.

Alabama has Miserable Week

Alabama (13-7, 3-6 SEC) probably wishes it had never been ranked No. 1. Ever since it earned that distinction in late December, the Crimson Tide has taken a plunge in the polls. Alabama has lost five of its last six games, was manhandled by Arkansas (7-12, 2-6 SEC) and Florida last week, and now finds itself unranked. Against the Razorbacks, Alabama’s offense continued to flounder, as it suffered an ignominious 81-70 defeat at Bud Walton Arena last Wednesday. Three days later, the Gators pounded the Tide 75-56 in Gainesville. Florida forward Matt Bonner scored 21 points and David Lee added 12 to power the Gators over the sinking Tide, which missed 13 of its first 14 shots.

Alabama’s poor start was indicative of how it would play the rest of the afternoon. For the sixth consecutive game, the Crimson Tide failed to shoot better than 41 percent from the field, as Alabama coach Mark Gottfried scoured his bench in hopes of finding a solution to a problem that has plagued the Tide the entire season. He didn’t find one. As a result, the Tide will return home to Tuscaloosa in hopes of patching up a season that is quickly unraveling.

Bulldogs Back on Track

After losing to Georgia ten days ago, No. 19 Mississippi State’s season seemed to have taken a definite turn for the worse. But the Bulldogs (15-5, 5-4 SEC) came back last week and scored victories over Vanderbilt and Arkansas. As a result, Mississippi State, which started 0-3 in conference play, now finds itself in second place in the SEC West division.

Last Wednesday, Mississippi State beat up on Vanderbilt (10-10, 3-6 SEC), which was riding a two-game winning streak coming into the match-up with the Bulldogs. Led by the stellar backcourt combination of Timmy Bowers and Derrick Zimmerman, Mississippi State defeated the Commodores 82-60 in Starkville. Bowers and Zimmerman combined for 27 points, as the Bulldogs dominated every facet of the game.

On Saturday, Mississippi State continued to fire on all cylinders. The Bulldogs routed Arkansas 84-54 at home, as Mario Austin, who leads the league in field goal percentage, scored 19 points. Mississippi State overwhelmed Arkansas with a suffocating defense that limited freshman guard Jonathon Modica to just four points. As Modica struggled, so did the Razorbacks. Arkansas shot just 25 percent from the field, as it remained winless on the road this season.

Auburn Sneaks past LSU

To secure its third win in SEC play, all LSU (13-8, 2-7 SEC) needed to do was score three points in the last 3:07. But it couldn’t do it. Leading 54-53 over Auburn, LSU’s offense went cold in the final minutes of the game, as it failed to score a single point. Remarkably, Auburn (17-5, 6-3 SEC) wasn’t able to take advantage of the Bayou Bengals’ untimely scoring drought until four seconds remained on the clock. That is when Nathan Watson buried a three to lift Auburn to a 56-54 victory Saturday on the plains of Alabama. Despite shooting just 38 percent, Auburn was able to steal a win and maintain its lead in the SEC West.

Meanwhile. LSU, which was coming off a 71-58 win over South Carolina Wednesday night, continued to struggle. LSU is ranked near the bottom of the SEC in every major offensive statistical category, despite having two of the top 20 scorers in SEC. Forwards Ronald Dupree (15.9 ppg.) and Jaime Lloreda (12.2 ppg.) have not been able to compensate for the lack of production by fifth-year senior Collis Temple III (9.6 ppg.) and guard Torris Bright (10.0 ppg.).

Cellar Dwellers Battle it Out

The two worst teams in the SEC East met on Saturday in an uninspiring match-up. South Carolina (8-11, 2-7 SEC) ended its seven-game losing streak with a bland 84-72 victory over Vanderbilt in Nashville. The Commodores, who enjoyed victories over Georgia and Ole Miss two weeks ago, dropped its second consecutive game as they were unable to stop South Carolina’s offense, which shot 59 percent from the floor.

“We’re coming off our worst week of the season,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said at a Monday news conference. “We did not play well in the two games we had, after we had a good week the week before. We’re struggling right now. We’re not playing well defensively, and we’re not rebounding. Until we do those things, we will continue to struggle.”

Chuck Eidson scored 18 points, Carlos Powell added 16, and Kerbrell Brown poured in 15 to lead the Gamecocks to their second win in conference play.


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