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MEMORIES OF MOM PROVIDE 'CATS EDWARDS WITH FOOD FOR THE SOUL

Last week, a reporter asked Kentucky's Allen Edwards for a list of the two dozen friends and family he expected to travel from his native Miami to watch him play here at the South Regional.

"My mom," Edwards blurted out. Then he stopped to regather himself.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I meant my sister."

It's been only three weeks since Laura Mae Edwards died of breast cancer. That is scarcely enough time for a son to fully come to grips with it. A lifetime isn't sufficient.

There are days when the telephone rings and he will think it's her, calling to see how he's doing, or to tell him what's going on with his dad or his older siblings.

"Sometimes I think she'll be there the next time I go home," Edwards said Saturday. "Or sooner or later I'm going to have a conversation with her. Then I pray to her, and I realize she's in a better place. She's looking over me. My guardian angel."

He was the baby, the youngest of Laura Mae's five children. Two of his older brothers played college basketball. Doug played at Florida State, Steve at Miami. Allen went away to Kentucky.

You know how it is with the youngest. The mother always seems to hold on to him more tightly, to shield him from a harsh, unsparing world.

She was diagnosed with cancer three years ago. Allen knew it, but she never let on how painful it really was. What good would it do? He was busy trying to be a student and a player for one of the top programs in America.

Two years ago, he played on a national champion. Last year, he was a starter as the Wildcats made it to the NCAA title game again. This year, he was a tri-captain, one of the most versatile members of the team.

All the while, Laura Mae's condition was worsening, but she kept as much from Allen as she could.

"She used to ask me, 'How come you don't call home no more?' Edwards said. "So I started calling a lot more. She'd always tell me, 'I'm doing fine. I'm doing fine.' People back home would tell me they'd just seen her and she was fine."

She was not fine. He knew that for certain on Feb. 22. That was Senior Night in Lexington, when departing players stand at midcourt with their parents and share the loving embrace of the Kentucky fans.

Laura Mae was too sick to be there. Four days later, on the morning after a road game at Auburn, Edwards was sitting in his room when he was summoned to the office of assistant George Felton.

"I remember thinking 'I hope it didn't happen,' " Edwards said. "When I got to the coaches' office, everyone was trying to be quiet. Coach Felton took me into his office. I cried and then I called home to see how everything was going."

Soon after he returned to his room, two of his devout teammates, Jeff Sheppard and Cameron Mills, came to pray with him. Sheppard's fiancee and her mother came, too.

"That was a special moment," Edwards said. "Even before her passing, I had a chance to get to know the Lord better with Cameron and Shep. I'd joined a church back in Lexington and I think that prepared me a lot."

Edwards left for Miami that day and missed Kentucky's final regular-season game at South Carolina. That was a Saturday. There was still a week left before the burial. He felt lost, empty.

He knew his mother wouldn't want him to waste time feeling sorry for himself. So he picked up the phone and called his coach, Tubby Smith.

"It's not doing me any good just sitting here thinking about it," he told Smith. "I need to get back to my daily routine of going to school, playing basketball and joking with my friends."

He returned to Lexington on Sunday. The next day at practice, he saw the letters "R.I.P. L.M.E." written on the sides of Scott Padgett's sneakers.

"Is that for me?" Edwards asked.

"Yeah," Padgett replied.

"Thanks, man," Edwards said. "I appreciate that."

That weekend, he accompanied the team to Atlanta for the SEC Tournament. He played in the first game and missed the semifinal to attend his mother's funeral in Holly Hill, S.C. He flew back for the title game and was the star as Kentucky beat South Carolina, 86-56.

It's odd, but the ordeal seems to have rejuvenated the 6-foot-5 forward. He was in a bad slump heading into Senior Night, but in the last four games, Edwards has averaged 13.8 points, well above his season's average of 9.2.

The 'Cats seem to be playing with renewed purpose, too. It's as if seeing a teammate suffer has put the game into perspective and given them peace. Since the funeral, they've won five games by an average of 25 points.

"It seems like after she died, everything turned around for us," Edwards said. "We're playing better and really hurting our opponents. I don't know if it's my mother looking over the team or what."

This afternoon, Kentucky plays Duke for a trip to the Final Four. Edwards said his father will be there. So will his sister, one of his brothers and 15-20 of his "homeboys" from Miami, wearing matching T-shirts with his likeness.

He says his mother will be there, too. Before the game, he'll put on his headphones and let his mind drift.

"When I listen to songs that remind me of her, I'm in a daze, up in the clouds," he said. "One song I listen to is by Boyz II Men. It's called 'A Song For Mama.'

"They're talking about their moms. There's one line that goes, 'You're food to my soul.' You think about how during low points in your life, she was always there to encourage you."

Sometimes he closes his eyes and sings it, just soft enough for her to hear.

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