LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) – Kentucky is hoping the story of its season will mirror the story of Sunday’s game. Miserable start, dominant finish.
The Wildcats overcame an 18-point deficit to defeat Arkansas 78-76, pulling to within a game of the lead in the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division after it appeared things were headed south for college basketball’s winningest program.
Randolph Morris led a second-half resurgence by matching a season-high 19 points in the Wildcats’ fourth-straight win.
“Everyone believed and had heart,” Morris said. “Everyone wanted to pull it out.”
Entering the game, Kentucky’s focus was keeping the 6-foot-10 center out of foul trouble against the bigger Razorback lineup. Morris did pick up four, but his first foul didn’t come until early in the second half – and that’s when he caught fire.
Morris, who also led the team with a season-high eight rebounds, had a one-handed dunk to tie the game at 57 with 6:45 left. He gave the Wildcats the lead for good on a 3-point play in the next possession.
Those scores, along with a thundering dunk on an inbound pass, were part of a 20-5 run that helped the Wildcats (14-5, 4-2 SEC) claw back into a game that closely resembled the way many of their losses have started.
Morris made the first basket of the game three minutes in, but those were Kentucky’s only two points in the opening seven minutes. Arkansas (14-6, 3-4) scored 18 of the next 20 to lead 18-4.
The Razorbacks would extend the lead to 18 on a dunk by Darian Townes with 6:15 to go in the half.
“That’s been our profile all year long,” said Kentucky coach Tubby Smith. “I just don’t get it. We just seem to play with not as much intensity and maturity to start the game.”
Arkansas coach Stan Heath suggested he wouldn’t mind borrowing a page out of Smith’s halftime speech. Kentucky rebounded after being behind 35-23 at halftime – the fourth-largest such deficit overcome in school history.
“Kentucky is starting to play at the level everyone thought that they could play,” Heath said.
After dropping back-to-back home games to start Southeastern Conference play, the Wildcats are now tied with Florida for second in the Eastern Division, only one game behind Tennessee. Kentucky travels to Mississippi State and Florida before hosting the Volunteers Feb. 7.
“We had to wake up,” said guard Ravi Moss. “We’re too lackadaisical in the first half. We had to win this game.”
Kentucky won the rebounding battle 37-31 and scored 10 more points in the paint.
During one stretch midway through the second half, the Wildcats started finding their outside shot and scored four of five baskets from 3-point range. Patrick Sparks made one of them and assisted on the other three. He led the team with eight assists.
Ronnie Brewer, who entered the game as the SEC’s scoring leader, had 23 Sunday to lead the Razorbacks. Brewer hit a 3-pointer with one second left for the final margin.
“I think our defense slipped a little bit,” Brewer said. “We got a little too relaxed with the ball.”
Eric Ferguson added 19, including four 3-pointers for Arkansas. Rajon Rondo had 14 points for Kentucky.
Smith battled the referees much of the game and erupted shortly before the first-half buzzer when Joe Crawford was called for goaltending for swatting away a Jonathon Modica shot that didn’t appear to reach the rim.
Perhaps the loudest cheers of the game came for the Kentucky women’s team, which was honored for its victory over No. 1 Tennessee Thursday. Despite the early struggles of the men’s team, those Wildcats will likely crack the Top 25 Monday.
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