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Cats find spine at Win-nessee

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Must-win. It's one of the most overused phrases in sports, especially given the number of times that "must-win" situations are followed by not-win outcomes. Kentucky's on-again, off-again hoopsters have uttered this phrase several times in recent months, only to falter in the clutch, rendering must-win games didn't-win losses.

But not Wednesday.

Must-win. It's one of the most overused phrases in sports, especially given the number of times that "must-win" situations are followed by not-win outcomes. Kentucky's on-again, off-again hoopsters have uttered this phrase several times in recent months, only to falter in the clutch, rendering must-win games didn't-win losses.

But not Wednesday.

Feeding off their embattled coach, the Wildcats seemed enlivened in the second half -- and what most Big Blue faithful wouldn't give to have heard that halftime speech -- scoring 7 straight after the break to turn a tenuous deficit into a possession by possession game.

Much of the credit for this goes to senior guard Brandon Stockton, the mighty mite whose injection into the starting lineup steadied the Cats, and whose dive-on-the-floor guts propelled his more talented teammates back into the NCAA at-large universe.

All year most UK fans have pointed to the gifted but enigmatic sophomore class as proof either that Tubby Smith can recruit, or as evidence that he cannot coach. Point guard Rajon Rondo, he of the lofty potential and NBA dreams, was unstoppable in the second half ... literally. Rondo hit all of his second-frame shots, a series of dribble drives and acrobatic layups that kept UK in or close to the lead. The Louisville native tacked on 8 assists in the game for good measure, all in 22 minutes of action.

"We didn't argue with each other and we didn't try to take it one-on-one," Rondo said. "That's a big key. When we got down 14, we started to play more as a team. ... It was a key win, we came off a tough loss and everyone was counting us out. So we stuck together and we were probably the only ones who believed that we could win."

I'll admit, like a lot of fans who have suffered through this most un-Kentucky of hoops seasons, I began to doubt seriously at 21-7 Vols in the first half. But unlike many, I also remembered what a surge of emotion Senior Day can bring to a home team. And I've seen enough teams weather that emotion against the Cats that I wasn't completely down. As it turns out, thankfully, neither were the Cats.

This was vintage Tubby Smith coaching, making the necessary adjustments at seemingly every juncture. Smith entrusted handling the Cat-killer Chris Lofton to none other than Patrick Sparks, whose crab-walk "quickness" hardly instills fans with the image of a defensive stopper. And yet, on Wednesday, Sparks answered the call, holding Lofton 3 points below his average, and 16 below his total in UT's crushing win at Rupp in early February.

Smith continued to pull the right strings all night, inserting a more confident Rondo and Randolph Morris into the second half starting lineup, as if rewarding them for their strong first-half performances. Such faith in his stars usually pays big dividends down the road, and most UK fans believe  -- and Tubby more or less acknowledged -- that we are finally seeing the team that was selected preseason top 15 by most pundits. After surrendering 53% shooting in the first half, the Cats buckled down enough in this see-saw affair to bring the Vols back to earth in the second (44%). That defense proved key on a night when big game Ravi Moss didn't have it, and turnovers threatened to spoil the Cats' revival hopes.

I echo the sentiments of several fans, who lauded Smith's calling Joe Crawford's number in a spread set late in the game. Tubby took appropriate heat for handing his season to Sheray Thomas against LSU last time out, and while Joe C's three-point attempt with 10 seconds left missed, and could still be called ill-advised given there was time left on the clock, Tubby' recruited stars to be stars, not decoys. At least one of the super sophs agreed.

"Coach showed he believed in me," said Rondo. "So I had to believe in myself."

Such sentiments can mean all the difference when the game is on the line in a tournament setting. And Smith has capably broken his squad down and built them back up in his image, something that could have happened much sooner had Morris been a part of the team on the floor from Day 1. Inserted into the rotation at SEC season, there was really no time for development or growth, only winning and -- more often then we thought -- losing.

Morris has grown tremendously in stature and confidence over the past few weeks. Against the height-challenged Vols, the Wildcat big man looked like an All-American, scoring on a variety of post moves, and drawing shooting fouls at will. Foul trouble kept Morris on the pine for much of the first half, but he had more than produced in his 9 early minutes, scoring 14 points and grabbing a slew of big rebounds to help keep the Cats in it.

Tubby has adapted well after rather stubbornly sticking to his script for much of the SEC's first half. Fact is, he didn't have muhc of a choice. After losing the Vandy game at Vandy for a three-game losing streak, the Cats had to make a change. I woudn't have expected Brandon Stockton, Woo and Moss starting, but that's why I'm on this end of the tube, not on Tubby's end.

All in all, an immensely satisfying 80-78 win in a hostile arena with everything on the line. So who's ready to do it all again Sunday?

Shaping up

The victory puts the Cats in <span style="font-style:italic;">much</span> better shape from a resume standpoint. The win at UT jumps UK to #33 in KenPom/ESPN.com mock RPI indeces.

With a strength of schedule of 21, the Cats could use a win over the Gators on Sunday to solidify the at-large beyond doubt, and to improve any potential seeding. It's starting to feel like UK basketball again!

The Prediction Biz

CBSSportsline.com scribe Greg Doyel has made his living -- and seems to be enjoying it, understandably -- the past few years by being a "stir the pot" guy. His bosses clearly enjoy the hits they receive whenever his latest hatchet job posts. I can fault him for that, so long as his facts are in order.

But he certainly borders on the excessive with random "predictions" about a team like Kentucky "avoiding a four-game losing streak."

I can understand looking at the situation and pondering four losses, but the guy doesn't have to revel in himself quite so much.