Date story was published: Sunday, February 7, 1988
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Rob Lock called it a return to reality. John Pelphrey quickly agreed.
Mississippi State, an 83-59 loser to Kentucky yesterday, was in no position to argue.
"In the first half, they played with a lot of emotion," Lock said of UK's shaky 28-23 halftime lead. "In the second half we returned to reality.
"And," a smiling Lock added, "we beat their --- by 30."
To which Pelphrey quipped, "That's reality."
In another SEC basketball reality, Kentucky returned to first place in the conference. The Wildcats gained a half game advantage over Florida when the Gators lost 58-57 to Auburn in Gainesville, Fla. UK is 8-3 in the SEC, 16-3 overall. Florida is 7-3 in the conference. Vanderbilt, which had been tied with Kentucky for second place, lost to LSU and fell to 7-4 in the league.
The most striking return to regularity for Kentucky yesterday belonged to Ed Davender. Banished to the bench at halftime last Wednesday against Mississippi, Davender re-emerged a star after intermission yesterday. His 15 second-half points combined with the inside play of Winston Bennett and Lock to overwhelm State. The trio scored 22 straight points for UK at one stage. That string propelled the Cats to a decisive 55-36 second-half advantage.
"It feels good, especially considering the situation I was in," said Davender, whose 21 points led a balanced UK attack.
Asked if he was looking for personal vindication, Davender said: "Not really. I just wanted to play the best game I could. If I had tried to do something different, it might have messed me up."
Not every brush with reality enhanced UK's chances at victory yesterday. LeRon Ellis dicovered the ups and downs of being a freshman in his first start on the road. Ellis, who had 14 points and six rebounds in each of his first two starts, missed his only shot and went scoreless in 18 minutes.
"Typical freshman game," UK coach Eddie Sutton said. "LeRon didn't play as enthusiastically and agressively as he did in the other two games. I still like him in the lineup. He'll start Wednesday (at Auburn)."
The surrealistic first half included a two-handed dunk by Eric Manuel that reversed direction after bouncing off Manuel's head. The ball went back through the hoop and out to the floor. Loose ball. No basket.
"Kind of a weird play," said an embarrassed Manuel. "I thought the shot was already through."
Referee Ben Dunn explained that a shot must pass all the way through the basket and net before counting as two points. The play became even more weird when referee Wally Tanner blew his whistle to signal that State's Todd Merritt was hurt. Merritt had twisted his ankle at the other end and Tanner apparently thought Manuel had concluded the dunk.
The lost points would have staked UK to a 20-9 lead. Given a reprieve, State got three three-pointers from freshman Doug Hartsfield and was within 28-23 at halftime.
Reality in the form of a relentless Big Blue wave came crashing down on Mississippi State after halftime. There was little resemblance between the final 20 minutes and the first.
Davender and company cut off the passing lanes. UK had 11 steals, five by Rex Chapman.
"Constant defensive pressure finally got us into double figures," Sutton said. "It allowed us to get easy baskets."
Sixteen of UK's points came in transition after State turnovers. Manuel's near-dunk would have made it 18.
At the other end, Davender penetrated for points. Bennett and Lock controlled the inside.
"In the second half, they outmanned us with size inside," State's freshman center, Chancellor Nichols, said. "If the shot wasn't there, they'd pop it outside and hit the jumper. How can you defend that?"
You can't, State coach Richard Williams said.
"The normal thing for a coach to say is we didn't do this or we didn't do that," Williams said. "The fact is Kentucky is just better than we are."
Kentucky's breakout followed a timeout with 14:15 left. Thanks to Lock's two rebound baskets and a pair of three-point plays by Davender, the Cats had a 42-35 lead.
"We've had a tendency that when we get a lead and have an opportunity to take charge, we've relaxed," Sutton said. "That's what I told the team: Let's build on this lead."
UK did, scoring 10 straight points as part of an 18-2 run that produced a 58-37 lead.
Bennett posted up Nichols for a three-point play, part of Bennett's 15- point, 11-rebound game.
"Winston Bennett is as much a man as there is in this league," Williams said. "He just took our freshmen to school."
After a State miss, Davender raced to a fast-break drive that netted another three points. That play, along with an earlier three-point shot, set the tone for Davender's second-half resurrection.
"When you can make a jumper and then take it to the basket, too, it takes you into a groove," Davender said.
A Bennett rebound basket, part of UK's 17-7 edge off the glass in the half, made for 10 straight UK points.
After a State basket cut the lead to 50-37, Bennett began an 8-0 Kentucky run with another post-up basket.
Davender concluded the spurt with a steal and driving layup through traffic.
"Something Coach (James) Dickey told me was if I was breaking and the defense was relaxed, to take it to the basket," said Davender of the advice that seemed to contradict earlier calls to slow down the tempo with a second- half lead. "You have to pick your spots. When you're a senior point guard, you're expected to know the right thing to do."
The final 10 minutes afforded Sutton the chance to look at his lower- profile players.
Sean Sutton came in for Davender with 9:39 left. In contrast to Wednesday, Davender's reaction to the move was to slap Sutton's palm and walk lightly to the bench to receive pats on the back from the UK coaches.
The younger Sutton scored five points and had three assists.
The final minutes also included a three-pointer from Derrick Miller, his first points since the Auburn game Jan. 9.