Date story was published: Monday, January 23, 1984
Rising to the occasion -- a necessity in a duel of 7-footers -- Kentucky overcame a bumbling start and a stumbling finish to beat Houston 74-67 yesterday at Rupp Arena.
A national television audience watched two teams with pro-like athletes play a game that included the kind of wild swings of momentum usually associated with the National Basketball Association.
In the end, after each team had spent its athletic ability, UK proved again an old basketball adage: two 7-footers are better than one.
Playing his best game since his return from a two-year layoff, Sam Bowie grabbed a career-high 18 rebounds and sent a message to NBA general managers.
"You like to say it'll help your money," Bowie said with a sly smile.
Melvin Turpin, the other "tower" in UK's twin set, added 11 rebounds and scored 19 points.
Together, they brought Houston's Akeem Olajuwon to earth and, in the end, drove the 7-foot Nigerian to the bench with five fouls.
Although Houston struggled until the end, without Olajuwon's usual dominance the fourth-ranked Cougars couldn't avoid falling to 16-3 on the season.
"That's asking a lot," Bowie said of Olajuwon's task of stopping Kentucky inside. "It was like double trouble for him."
Make that triple trouble because Kenny Walker rolled up 20 points and 10 rebounds.
"We thought it would be three against one," Bowie said, "and that would be in our favor."
Olajuwon scored 14 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, blocked five shots and altered the flight of countless others. "Akeem's great; my hat's off to him," Walker said. "I don't think he's played against a 7-footer all year. Then, to play aginst two, well, that's got to be tough. He did all he could do."
But it wasn't enough yesterday as Olajuwon and his foul-plagued teammates were overcome in a game of attrition. Four Houston starters fouled out in a game that had 54 fouls called.
"Kentucky's got a great team; we knew that," Houston Coach Guy Lewis said. ''They played well. So did we. We just didn't have as many big horses to put in there."
Roger Harden, a mere polo pony in this game of thoroughbreds, was one of Kentucky's heroes.
The 6-foot-1 sophomore guard was taken out of the starting lineup and replaced by freshman James Blackmon. But when Blackmon, starting for the first time at point guard and the second time overall, committed four turnovers in the first four minutes, UK Coach Joe Hall summoned Harden.
UK trailed 11-1 and was guilty of six turnovers against Houston's trapping pressure when Harden entered the game after the Wildcats called time at the 15:58 mark.
"I was thinking disaster," Walker admitted. "We had 18 turnovers in the first half. Against Houston, that's not going to cut it. We were lucky to be ahead at halftime."
Houston's 1-3-1 trapping press caught Kentucky by surprise early. The Cats had been practicing against a 2-2-1 press. With Harden steadying UK, the Cats began to get back into the game.
"To come back like we did took a lot of poise," Hall said. "I thought we played with tremendous aggressiveness. We really came through the way a good team should."
Asked why Houston's press lost its effectiveness, Lewis said: "They put that little guard (Harden) in there. He kind of went through us. He kind of turned it around."
UK, which improved its record to 14-2, had only a Turpin free throw to show for its offense in the first five minutes. Turpin broke the dry spell with exactly 15 minutes left in the half when he took a feed from Harden and scored over Olajuwon.
Over the next three minutes, UK outscored Houston 12-6 to get within striking distance. Harden keyed the rush by both lobbing and shooting over Houston's 2-3 zone, a defense the Cougars stayed in throughout the game.
On Harden's first trip downcourt, he lobbed for Bowie but threw the pass too long. Later, he and Bowie connected for a slam off a lob to cut Houston's lead to 17-13.
"As soon as we got it over halfcourt, we wanted to attack him (Olajuwon)," Harden said.
That was the plan, he said. It was further amended during a late-night confab with Bowie Saturday in the Wildcat Lodge.
"Boo said O'I want that lob,' " Harden said.
Although Bowie got only one basket off a lob, his late night request signaled a renewed vigor.
"We had a 10 p.m. curfew; maybe you should keep this a secret but I didn't get to sleep then," Bowie told a group of reporters huddled beneath him. "I was kind of hyped-up. I haven't been playing up to my expectations. I felt I had an opportunity to prove myself."
With his mother, Cathy, among the 23,992 packed into Rupp Arena, Bowie displayed the kind of board work and defensive intimidation UK fans remember fondly.
"No one looks forward to taking it to Akeem," Bowie said. "But playing against him brings the best out of you. And when you've got a guy like Melvin Turpin with you, things come easily."
Turpin, Bowie and Walker outrebounded the Houston front line 47-37. The UK trio outrebounded Houston's starting front line 39-26.
In terms of intimidation, Houston had one more block (6-5), but Lewis gave Kentucky the edge in altered shots.
"If you've got two 7-footers going against one," the Houston coach said, ''I'd say the intimidation would work out two to one."
While UK didn't have a field-goal percentage twice as good as Houston's, the Cats did enjoy a healthy advantage from the field. UK shot 49.1 percent from the field. Houston made just 34.7 percent of its shots.
Despite the poor shooting, the Cougars clung to their lead until the waning moments of the first half. It was during the final 2:25 that UK outscored Houston 7-2 and took a 35-31 lead.
In that same span, Olajuwon picked up his third foul, a factor that caused him to play more passively in the second half.
Olajuwon had two fouls when he was taken out of the game with 4:20 remaining in the first half. Surprisingly, Lewis put his big man back into the game and Olajuwon was hit with his third foul as he stepped in front of a driving Blackmon.
Olajuwon picked up his fourth foul while fighting for a rebound in traffic with 15:24 to play. With Olajuwon handicapped, UK seemed to gain confidence. Back-to-back baskets by Walker, the second a slam off a fast-break lob from Jim Master, pushed the Cats out to their largest lead, 61-51, with eight minutes remaining.
Just when it appeared Houston had had enough (Olajuwon fouled out at the 6:14 mark), the Cougars charged back. Led by point guard Alvin Franklin, who had a game-high 24 points, Houston cut UK's lead to 70-67.
Franklin scored 10 straight points for Houston during the run. The Cougars were also helped by UK's poor free-throw shooting. The Cats made little more than half their free throws in the game (20 of 37) and missed the front end of five one-and-ones in the final six minutes.
Houston could have creeped even closer, but the Cougars missed four free throws in the final 34 seconds.
"I thought it would be the kind of game we needed and it turned out to be just that," Hall said. "It was a good game to get out and run. Even with the turnovers and missed free throws, we still played a good game."