Date story was published: Sunday, March 1, 1987
Kentucky took its precarious position for post-season play to the brink yesterday.
"When I looked up I saw the shot clock and knew I had to shoot rather than pass or we wouldn't get it off," Rex Chapman said. "So I just let it go."
So Kentucky beat Mississippi 64-63 on an improvised 12-footer with a split second of shot-clock time to spare. All of six seconds were left in a game that Kentucky could ill afford to lose and that Mississippi fought so hard to win.
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With its 17th victory in 26 games, UK tied Georgia for third place in the Southeastern Conference's regular-season race and inched further from the brink of elimination from NCAA Tournament consideration. Kentucky will return to Rupp Arena today to continue work on the latter. The Cats will face Oklahoma, 21-7, in a made-for-TV regular-season finale.
As for this week's SEC Tournament, Kentucky will have the fourth seed because Georgia swept the series with the Wildcats. UK's first-round opponent will be the winner of today's Louisiana State-Auburn game.
Even though yesterday's victory was Kentucky's 45th in 46 meetings against Mississippi in Lexington, it was hardly routine. Less than six minutes into the duel of man-to-man defenses, UK took a lead it would hold until the final minute. The Cats led by as much as 10, and that margin came only briefly late in the first half.
"We had as good a chance to win as we could have hoped for," Ole Miss coach Ed Murphy said. "That's about as good as we can play. We played hard; we played smart; we played unselfishly; and our defense gave us a chance to beat Kentucky on the road."
When Ole Miss center Ronnie Sims posted up for a layup with 51 seconds left, the Rebels led 63-62. It was their first lead since 10-9.
"I was kind of stunned the way Ole Miss came back," Ed Davender said. UK led 62-55 with 3:39 to go. "A lot of stuff goes through your mind in that situation. But Coach (Eddie) Sutton always says you have to believe."
After Sims' basket, UK worked the clock to 15 seconds before calling time. Nine seconds remained on the shot clock.
Sutton said the first option was to look for Richard Madison posting up low. "Richard has been the player for us most likely to do something with the ball inside," the UK coach said.
Madison was open for an instant, but Davender said he did not want to risk a turnover with a pass into traffic.
That left a second option: Chapman, who had set a screen for Madison, would circle around a double pick for a jumper at the top of the key.
Chapman got to his spot, but Davender had trouble fighting off Roderick Barnes' defense to make the pass.
"I figured he was in trouble," Barnes said. "I thought they weren't getting a shot off."
Murphy and Barnes thought Davender walked as he struggled to get Chapman the ball.
"I can't be for sure," Barnes said, "but I looked at the ref waiting for the call."
Davender passed to Chapman, who had one defender (Joe Ayers) to beat and another (Sims) coming to help.
Chapman dribbled by Ayers and double-clutched Sims into the air while stealing a glance at the shot clock. Then, as he said, he had one choice: take a shot.
The off-balance, one-handed flip "felt good" on the release, Chapman said. When it swished through, a Rupp crowd of 23,265 felt good, too.
"It was a circus shot and not the one Eddie drew up, I guarantee you," Murphy said with a smile. "I'll bet on that. I sure as hell wouldn't draw it up. Chapman's a great player. He'll make a lot of them before he's through."
Yesterday's game-saving basket was Chapman's second this month. On Feb. 11 he dribbled the length of the court and hit a bank shot over Tennessee center Doug Roth with three seconds left to send that game into overtime. Kentucky won that game 91-84.
"This was a tougher shot," the freshman flash said. "Roth didn't jump. And Sims is a little better athlete than Roth and could get up to block it."
Even then, the Rebels, 15-12 and 8-10, did not concede. With no timeouts remaining and the Cats beginning a premature celebration, a quick-witted Barnes intentionally inbounded the ball off teammate Joe Ayers, who was standing amid the confusion. Barnes retrieved the ball and flung a shot from three-quarters of the court away.
Did he think it might go in? "Nah, I was too far away," the Ole Miss point guard said. "But as it went along, I starting leaning, thinking it might go in."
The shot hit the backboard about a foot to the right and six inches below the basket.
Unlike last month's first meeting, Kentucky held its own on the boards yesterday. Each team grabbed 25, but Ole Miss had only 10 off the offensive board. In Oxford, the Cats had a 20 rebounds. "We felt that was the biggest key," Sutton said.
UK also worked inside much more than in recent games. Of its 16 first-half baskets, the Cats had 13 from the paint. UK attempted just one three-pointer. Chapman missed.
A left-handed slam by Rob Lock established Kentucky's first 10-point lead (33-23).
The concentration on shots inside may have been intended to draw a thin Ole Miss team into foul trouble. Whatever the reason, it contributed to UK's 53.2 percent shooting. Kentucky hadn't made at least 50 percent of its shots since playing at Alabama on Jan. 7, a span of five games.
"But Ole Miss never allowed us to break the game open," Sutton said. "They were solid, patient."
When Chapman threw away two passes early in the second half, he was banished to the bench at the 18:29 mark. The turnovers helped melt a 41-33 halftime lead.
"There may have been some turnovers not forced by defense, but for the most part the turnovers were a result of good, hard-nosed man-to-man defense," Sutton said. "Both teams played well defensively."
In the end, even the best of defenses couldn't stop Kentucky's game-winner.