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For E. Kentucky, Loss Hits Close to Home

By Mark Schlabach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 18, 2005; Page D07

INDIANAPOLIS, March 17 -- Eastern Kentucky guard Ben Rushing sat in the Colonels' locker room at the RCA Dome on Thursday, his shoes unlaced and his legs stretched out in front of him. Rushing has a two-inch scar below his left knee and a nearly identical one on his right knee. He has a smaller scar on his left wrist. Rushing admits his nose is now a little flat, after he underwent reconstructive surgery four years ago to repair the damage done by an elbow.

But after what he and his teammates experienced Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Rushing says he would gladly endure the pain all over again. The No. 15 seed Colonels didn't beat No. 2 seed Kentucky in the opening game of the Austin Region, but they more than held their own against the seven-time national champions in a 72-64 loss.

Eastern Kentucky's Jason McLeish gets a jump on the Wildcats' Ramel Bradley during first-round action. (Brent Smith -- Reuters)

After the Wildcats made a key defensive stop and two baskets in the final 3 1/2 minutes to avoid an embarrassing first-round exit, the crowd at RCA Dome gave the Colonels a standing ovation as they walked off the court. That, Rushing said, was the moment he has waited for his entire life.

"This is a dream come true," Rushing said. "This is the day a lot of us have waited for our whole lives. It feels great to know that we were right there at the end with Kentucky."

Growing up tiny Clinton, Ky., Rushing wanted nothing more than to play basketball for the Wildcats. But when the 5-foot-11 guard graduated from Hickman County High School, the Wildcats weren't knocking on his door. So Rushing chose Eastern Kentucky, which had just hired former Wildcats player Travis Ford as its coach.

Rushing redshirted his first season while rehabilitating a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He tore the ACL in his right knee last summer, and underwent surgeries in November for a torn ligament in his left wrist and torn cartilage in his left knee. He missed the Colonels' first 11 games, but told Ford he would make it back to help his team play in the NCAA tournament.

The Colonels, who were 7-19 in Ford's first season in 2000-01, earned an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament by winning the Ohio Valley Conference tournament. When the NCAA selection committee on Sunday matched the Colonels against Kentucky, it was a game Wildcats Coach Tubby Smith and Ford weren't looking forward to playing.

"It put a lot of people in tough situations," Ford said. "It put a lot of my friends in tough situations. When they put us two together, they had to say, 'Ha. Ha.' They knew what they were doing."

While Ford would have preferred playing another team, his players embraced the challenge. Eastern Kentucky's campus is only 25 miles from Lexington, where the Wildcats play in front of 20,000 fans in Rupp Arena. During the summer, players from both schools play in pickup games together. The Colonels held their own in those games and wanted to show everybody else they could play well on college basketball's biggest stage.

"We knew Eastern Kentucky was going to come out with everything they had," said Kentucky forward Chuck Hayes, who had 16 points and nine rebounds. "We know them all and they know us."

After Eastern Kentucky kept the game close in the opening minutes, the Wildcats seemed ready to put the Colonels away when they went ahead 35-20 on forward Kelenna Azubuike's layup and foul shot with 5 minutes 41 seconds left in the first half. But the Colonels closed the half with a 12-5 run and only trailed 40-32 at halftime.

In the second half, Rushing came off the bench, dribbled between his legs twice on the right side of the court and drilled a 30-foot three-pointer over Ravi Moss, which cut the Wildcats' lead to 60-54. With 4:15 to play, Colonels guard Matt Witt made another three-pointer to make it 64-59, and then Kentucky's Rajon Rondo turned the ball over.

But after the timeout, the Colonels threw the basketball into forward Michael Haney, who tried to score over freshman Randolph Morris. Morris blocked his shot into the side of the backboard, and Rondo grabbed the rebound. Morris was fouled with 3:11 left and missed the second of two free throws. Hayes grabbed the offensive rebound, ran off a little more clock and scored on a tough bank shot to give Kentucky a 67-59 lead with 2:42 to go.

The Colonels made it 67-62 on Witt's three-pointer with 2:13 left, but then Morris tipped in Hayes's missed layup. The Wildcats made three free throws in the final 55.3 seconds to escape with a tough victory.

"Keeping it close was a bonus," Ford said. "I think people can say we're a legitimate basketball team now."

CINCINNATI 76, IOWA 64: The Hawkeyes missed 13 of their first 14 shots and scored only four points in the first 11 minutes. Bearcats forward Jason Maxiell scored 22 points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked six shots. Although the schools are separated by less than 100 miles, Cincinnati and Kentucky, the Bearcats' second-round opponent, haven't played each other since 1991.

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