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March 15, 2012LOUISVILLE - Kentucky was running out of gas at the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The Wildcats admitted it. Their opponents noticed it.
But top-seeded UK delivered a high-speed message Thursday night in its NCAA Tournament opener, an 81-66 win against Western Kentucky.
The arrow's pointing at "F" again. These Wildcats (33-2) are refueled and ready to run.
"We just wanted to show everybody in the country that we're in shape and we're going to keep running with them," said guard Doron Lamb, who scored 16 points for UK. "We can keep running when they stop."
The Cats advanced to Saturday's Round of 32, where they'll face Iowa State, a 77-64 winner against Connecticut on Thursday.
That game will follow the Murray State-Marquette game that tips off at 5:15 p.m.
Officially, Kentucky scored eight fast-break points against the Hilltoppers (16-19), but that didn't reflect the high-octane approach the Cats took for much of the night before letting off the gas late.
The Wildcats looked ahead for teammates sprinting down the floor. They picked their spots to pick up the pace. They lobbed passes for dunks and finished with authority at the rim.
In short, they looked like the fined-tuned Kentucky team that dominated the regular season, not the sputtering engine that showed up at the SEC Tournament.
"We felt like we needed to get more easy baskets in transition," forward Darius Miller said. "We were trying to make a point to push it and get out and go, make (WKU) try to have to keep up with us."
The Cats didn't push the pace much in New Orleans, and their SEC opponents took notice. Florida forward Patric Young said the Gators didn't think Kentucky was in the best shape, a quote that made its way to the Wildcats via the coaching staff.
"That was crazy," said forward Terrence Jones, who led UK with 22 points and 10 rebounds Thursday. "We're one of the most in-shape teams in the country."
For much of the WKU game, they looked like the fastest, and the best. The Hilltoppers struggled to keep up.
"That basketball team isn't named the No. 1 team in this tournament for nothing," WKU guard Derrick Gordon said. "We just sort of rushed things in the first half. We wasn't playing like ourselves. We didn't get back in transition defense."
Western made a late run after trailing by as many as 32 points, but before they closed the gap, the Cats looked like their regular-season selves.
And that was the game plan.
John Calipari said UK "worked two days on getting back to playing faster, and the commitment showed.
"We have so many athletes, so many people who can finish through the lane," point guard Marquis Teague said. "Michael (Kidd-Gilchrist), he'll dunk on you, Terrence - we've got so many players like that, it makes it difficult for (other teams)."
The pace was too much for WKU, but Kentucky has designs on bigger things. UK remains five wins away from its ultimate goal of an NCAA title, and the hope is there's gas left in the tank for a long drive.
"We've been working in practice to get open looks, fast-break opportunities and that's what happened today," said forward Anthony Davis, who finished with 16 points, nine rebounds and seven blocked shots. "If we just keep doing what we're doing - keep playing defense and rebounding - we should go a long way."