Kentucky Smashes Florida International

By: AP
By: AP

It was a meaningless free throw in a game long since decided, but the Rupp Arena crowd rose to cheer on Derrick Jasper anyway.

The Kentucky guard had missed his three previous free throws badly, but this time, bending his surgically repaired left knee, the ball fell through.

The shot was the last of Jasper's four points in Kentucky's 92-49 romp over Florida International on Monday, but for a player who wondered if he'd ever play again after having offseason microfracture surgery, it may as well have been a game-winner.

"I just wanted to get out there and play and have a positive impact," said Jasper, who added five assists and a team-high 10 rebounds in 28 minutes.

Playing with a full complement of players for the first time all season, suddenly 2008 doesn't look so bleak for the Wildcats (6-6), who were coming off an embarrassing home loss to San Diego.

"I felt that it's the first time all year we've played smart and played together," said coach Billy Gillispie. "We're not nearly there, but we're headed in the right direction."

Thanks in part to the play of Jasper, who made sure the Wildcats quickly got over the loss to San Diego. Jasper ran the offense crisply and didn't hesitate to get in the lane and rebound, a sign that he's getting used to playing with the cumbersome brace that protects his left knee.

"It's kind of heavy, but people hit it and it hurts them," Jasper said with a laugh.

For once, the Wildcats didn't feel any pain in racing past the Golden Panthers.

Ramel Bradley scored 22 points while becoming the 55th player in school history to top 1,000 career points. Jodie Meeks added 21 and Patrick Patterson chipped in with 20 for the Wildcats, the first time three Wildcats scored 20 points in the same game since 2002.

Russell Hicks led FIU (3-9) with 17 points and 11 rebounds, but the Golden Panthers couldn't keep up while losing their sixth straight.

"I know (Gillispie) has been tinkering with different lineups and I guess he found one that works," said FIU coach Sergio Rouco. "The way they shot the ball early, they got on a roll."

The Wildcats began the game with their 11th different starting lineup of the season, but it didn't take long for Gillispie to bring some familiar faces off the bench.

When Joe Crawford and Jasper entered the game less than two minutes in, it marked just the second time this season the Wildcats put their best five players on the floor at the same time.

"Joe told me 'Let's go run' and that's exactly what we did," Jasper said.

With Crawford and Jasper joining Meeks, Bradley and Patterson on the floor, it didn't take long for the Wildcats to find some much-needed cohesion.

Kentucky reeled off 10 quick points, spreading the floor with the four guards while Patterson worked the middle.

"We don't have to worry much about (Jasper) making bad decisions," Crawford said. "I had more energy just from having him out there."

FIU managed to briefly make it competitive, but the Wildcats broke it open with a 15-3 run fueled by some hot 3-point shooting. The Wildcats made five of their first seven 3-pointers, and the energy translated at the other end of the floor.

A steal by Meeks led to a layup by Mark Coury. Seconds later Coury stepped in front of a pass, leading to a 3-pointer by Crawford. A 3-pointer by Meeks pushed the lead to 21, and Kentucky ended the half with a flourish as Bradley hit an acrobatic layup in the lane and added another one at the first half buzzer after the Golden Panthers threw it away while trying to deal with the Wildcat press.

"We knocked down some shots, got out in transition and played some good defense," Bradley said.

The crowd roared its approval as the Wildcats raced to the locker room, a marked difference from the quiet groaning that signaled the end of the loss to San Diego.

The second half brought more of the same, as the Wildcats withstood a brief flurry by the Golden Panthers, putting them away with a 14-2 run that gave Kentucky a 59-32 lead and allowed the Wildcats to start thinking ahead to Saturday's game against rival Louisville.

"It's big not only for the rivalry that's between us but for us to get a substantial win," Bradley said.

It's a win that seems a little more plausible after the Wildcats held the Golden Panthers to 31 percent shooting and played with the kind of spirited effort that it has lacked at times this year.

The Wildcats forced 17 turnovers, leading to 27 points and had little trouble pushing the pace.

"We made a lot of our shots today and played with confidence," Crawford said. "I think this is definitely a step forward for us and we'll be ready for Louisville."

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