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February 23, 2008

Cardiac Cats

The final chapter of Kentucky's season has yet to be written but you can be sure there will be a thick chunk of the book dedicated to toughness and heart. They are quickly becoming the meat and potatoes of the Cats' story.

UK displayed both in abundance yet again, grinding out a physical 63-58 victory over Arkansas in front of the fifth-largest crowd in Rupp Arena history. The win was UK's eighth in the last nine games, seven of which have come by eight or fewer points, and represented yet another example of their burgeoning grit.

"No matter what the situation looks like they never give in and never give up," UK coach Billy Gillispie said. "It's fun to coach. Our guys dug in, inched their way back and found a way to win. It's fun to coach guys like that that won't ever give up."

It would have been easy to do so after the Cats began Southeastern Conference play by losing two of their first three games, including heartbreaking road defeats at Mississippi State and Florida. Instead, the Cats arched their backs and returned home to deal Tennessee it's only conference loss and haven't looked back since that time. In the process UK has gone from a 7-9 afterthought to legitimate NCAA Tournament bubble team thanks to spunk and determination.

Just look at the closing minutes of another thriller.

Trailing 55-54 with 2:36 remaining after Sonny Weems swooped in for a floater in transition the Cats did not allow another field goal until Weems drove to the basket to cut the UK lead to three with 7.0 on the clock. In the meantime, Joe Crawford hit a free throw to tie the game and then a fade away jumper by Ramel Bradley over fellow Brooklynite Gary Ervin gave UK the lead for good with 1:16 remaining. Bradley hit 4-of-6 free throws and Patrick Patterson made two attempts in the final 51.1 seconds to seal the win.

"The shot felt really good and it went down for me," Bradley said. "It felt a little bit better because Gary Ervin is from Brooklyn. He played really good defense but luckily the shot went in."

Ervin, who had a notable battle with his former AAU teammates last year in Fayetteville as well, wasn't as forthcoming with praise for Bradley's heroics.

"There's no excuse (for losing)," Ervin said. "It wasn't like we were down 10 points with one minute to go. It was a game where we were up with four minutes to go. We need to get stops on the defensive end, which we were unable to do, and convert on offense."

The Razorbacks did neither.

In the wake of Weems' go-ahead bucket the Hogs got next to nothing. Ervin missed a drive into heavy traffic, Weems missed a baseline jumper when Crawford, who had switched onto him late in the game, got a piece of the ball as he went up, Patrick Beverley had a pass tipped off him and out of bounds by Derrick Jasper and then missed a contested drive before Weems gave Arkansas a final chance by cutting the lead to 61-58.

No matter, Bradley sank two free throws to seal yet another heart-stopping victory. It's almost as if you could pop in the same game film and just substitute the opponent over the last two months.

"I feel like it's kind of now or never," Crawford said. "Once you get in that moment we are really stressing going all out and playing with your whole heart and we can win this ball game in situations like that."

Bradley credited Gillispie's take-no-prisoners mindset for the team's 7-1 mark in SEC games decided by six points or less.

"Coach tells us all the time that the game will come down to one or two possessions and each and every day we are taking on his identity more and more, getting tougher and competing more," Bradley said. "In the end that's when we really have to dig in, get the rebound and get the stop."

Expect that to be in the book as well.

Matt May is the basketball beat reporter for The Cats' Pause. If you have questions or comments about the Cats e-mail him here.

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