Date story was published: Friday, March 7, 1986
Kentucky put to rest fears that its talk of Dallas and the Final Four was breeding overconfidence last night.
Instead, the Wildcats justified their candid confidence by burying Mississippi 95-69 in a stunning display that created even more Final Four speculation.
"There's a certain chemistry on that team," Ole Miss coach Lee Hunt said of Kentucky. "I wouldn't be surprised to see that team in the Final Four."
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A Rupp Arena crowd of 18,230 got more than a glimpse of what could be a sweet future for this Kentucky team. In the game's first 14 minutes, UK had already bolted to a 22-point lead (35-13 at the 6:03 mark).
Defense (four Mississippi turnovers in the fist four minutes). Good shooting. (54.8 percent in the first half). Rebounding (after 10 minutes, UK had rebounded all but two of its missed shots).
It was all there as UK roared into tonight's semifinals. The Wildcats, 27-3, will play Louisiana State for the second time in six days. Alabama will play Mississippi State, upset winner over second-seeded Auburn, in the other semifinal.
The two winners will meet Saturday afternoon (2:30 tipoff) for the title. However, the Wildcats were looking further than that.
"We can't play any better than that," said Sutton of the fast start. "We could have done well against anybody in that stretch. We could have done well against Duke."
After Mississippi scored the game's first basket, UK took command.
UK reeled off 11 straight points and never looked back.
So dismal was the outlook for Ole Miss that at the 16:23 mark the Rebels had three turnovers and just one shot attempt. Plus, Ole Miss' leading scorer, Eric Smith, had already picked up two fouls. Smith, who averaged 17.8 points per game in the regular season, had just two points in the first half. He finished with 10.
Kenny Walker, who guarded - and frustrated - Smith most of the night, led UK with 28 points.
With 12:19 remaining, Walker double-clutched under the basket while being fouled twice. He jumped under the left side of the basket and released the shot under the right side. It put UK ahead by 20 (63-43).
Sutton substituted freely in the first of what Kentucky hopes is its three SEC Tournament games.
With 12 minutes remaining, the Wildcat lineup included 12th man Todd Ziegler, Rob Lock and Leroy Byrd.
Ole Miss cut UK's lead to 69-57 with six minutes to go.
"I get concerned when it gets to that point," said Sutton, who rushed Ed Davender and Winston Bennett back into the game.
Three-point plays by Lock and Walker, who was also reinserted, halted the comeback.
By the end, UK's bench was wheeling and dealing. Byrd tied his career-high of six points (he also had a half-dozen against East Carolina in December) and wanted more.
When the little (5-foot-2) senior zipped for a layup with 11 seconds left, he crashed into a row of photographers. Once he regained his feet, Byrd immediately checked the scoreboard to see the time remaining.
"I was having fun out there," Byrd said. "I didn't want it to end."
Ole Miss could have been excused for looking for an early end.
Kentucky reeled off 11 straight points following Joe Ayers opening basket. The Wildcats did it with both defense and offense.
UK forced four turnovers and blocked a shot in the game's first four minutes.
Meanwhile, Kentucky's defense shut down Mississippi's two main threats. Smith got off only five shot in the first half. He made one.
Point guard Rod Barnes, who had 17 points and eight assists in Ole Miss' 73-56 victory over Tennessee Wednesday night, almost had as many turnovers (four) as points (three) in the decisive first half.
"It was excellent defense," Hunt said. "They forced us out of things we wanted to do. They play pressure defense as well as anyone in America."
Walker, who had 10 points in the half, had one of the two fast-break points in the 11-0 run that put UK ahead 11-2 at the 16:03 mark.
James Blackmon, who led all scorers at intermission with 14 points, had the other. Blackmon finished with 18.
UK's lead grew to as many as 22 points in the opening half. The play that pushed the lead to 31-9 was typical of UK's all-out hustle in the half.
Bennett dove to the floor to tap a loose ball ahead to Davender. Davender had to hit the floor to slap it ahead to Blackmon, who drove for the layup that put Kentucky ahead by 22.
Harden said Mississippi State's upset victory over Auburn in the game before UK's sparked the Wildcats.
"I wouldn't say it was the main thing," Harden said, "but their locker room was right next to ours. We could tell they had upset Auburn.
"We wanted to put that thought out of (Ole Miss') mind early."
The margin was still 22 when Sutton began substituting liberally.
Freshman Irving Thomas was inserted with 7:24 left in the half. Thomas played for three minutes, marking the first time since UK demolished Virginia Military Institute on Dec. 30 that Thomas had played more than one minute in a first half.
By halftime, when UK led 40-23, the Wildcats were threatening to better their widest victory margin of the season: 93-55 over VMI.
The Cats didn't get that, although the 95 points was the team's second- highest total of the season. UK beat Hawaii 98-65 in November.
Kentucky also served notice that its talk of Dallas might be OK, after all.
"A lot of people think we're cocky," Walker said. "Ain't nothing wrong with being confident."