Date story published: Thursday, January 5, 1989
One, two, three times earlier this season Eddie Sutton declared a new beginning for Kentucky's basketball team. Just as many times he then watched the same old problems continue to mount to unprecedented heights.
Last night, UK delivered. A new Wildcat team opened its Southeastern Conference season by decisively beating Georgia, the pre-season favorite, 76-65.
Though playing the nation's No. 20 team, the Cats never trailed. Three reasons:
Given the outside shot, Reggie Hanson scored a career-high 20 points.
Freshman Chris Mills continued to show senior-like consistency, scoring 18 points and for the sixth straight game grabbing double-figure rebounds (12).
Sophomore LeRon Ellis quit playing like an inconsistent freshman. "That's exactly the way I want LeRon to play," Sutton said after Ellis had 18 points, six rebounds, three steals, two blocks and two assists. "First of all, he played hard. That's the way he has to play for us to win."
Afterward, Georgia wondered out loud: Who were those guys?
"When I saw them on film they didn't play as hard as they played tonight," Georgia's leading scorer, Alec Kessler, said. "They really wanted this game."
Added Patrick Hamilton, who hardly lived up to his best-defensive-guard-in- the-SEC billing: "We underestimated them. Basically, that's what we did. They came out and played hard. I guess they wanted it more than we did."
UK, which improved to 6-7 overall, took command with a 10-0 start. Georgia briefly closed to 26-24, but UK's only three-pointer, by Derrick Miller, stemmed the tide.
"This was the best game we've played," Sutton said. "We didn't have as many dry periods. For 40 minutes, that was the best we've played."
Simply put, Kentucky outplayed Georgia and probably left many in the Rupp Arena crowd of 21,209 wondering how the Cats lost to Northwestern State and Bowling Green.
"I have a lot of respect for Kentucky and its players and coaches," Georgia coach Hugh Durham said. "They had their backs against the wall. Kentucky didn't play like this against Bowling Green. They figured they could beat Bowling Green and slide on through. Tonight, the coaches weren't getting on their case. They were saying 'Way to go'
"We didn't play the same team."
Durham admitted that going into the game he feared his team would expect to play the UK team that had already matched the highest one-season total for Rupp Arena defeats (three).
That his concern was realized was reflected in two areas, Durham said. The Bulldogs committed 21 turnovers, about seven more than their average and about 11 more than they've averaged in recent games, he said.
Georgia's guards, a defensive strength, did not defend well, he said.
"They didn't get many points," Durham said of UK's guards, "but they got the ball to the people who did. Kentucky's inside people kicked us."
Georgia, which fell to 9-3 overall and 1-1 in SEC play, got only 12 points from leading scorer Alec Kessler.
Hanson took advantage of an early matchup with massive -- but slow -- Georgia center Elmore Spencer. Hanson scored six points in the first three minutes and helping UK to a 10-0 lead.
Asked if he expected to be left alone for 15-footers, Hanson said: "I had no idea. I didn't think they'd play like that. The coaches said they'd play aggressive defense. But if they'll give it to me, I'll take it."
Hanson hit nine of 18 shots from the floor, including the three baskets early that Durham felt set a tone.
"You're concerned if a team jumps out early and gains confidence when they haven't been playing with confidence," the Georgia coach said. "Kentucky's got talented-enough players. Mills and Ellis are two of the top players in the country. If they play with confidence and believe in themselves, then they'll play well. That's exactly what happened."
Georgia's problems were compounded by Hanson's defense on Kessler. Averaging 20.9 points entering the game, Kessler did not score against Hanson.
After UK switched to a 2-3 zone eight minutes into the game, Kessler still couldn't find the range. He didn't score until a baseline jumper with 4:07 left in the half.
"Reggie did an excellent job because he made it tough for Kessler to catch the ball," Sutton said. "When he did catch it, the players were told to converge on him, get back in his lap."
Kessler was held to two points on 1-of-5 shooting, and Spencer, who was averaging 13.4 points, did not score until 3:41 remained in the half.
Yet, after the 10-0 run, UK had to fight off a Georgia rally that cut the lead to 26-24 on Spencer's first basket.
Georgia's rally was helped by Eddie Sutton's first technical of the season.
UK led 14-7 when Spencer fumbled a pass. The loose ball went into the corner near UK's bench where a diving Hamilton had a last chance to retrieve it.
When the ball went out of bounds, the referee on the play, Danny Hooker, held his right arm up and waited while referee David Jones came running from midcourt.
With Sutton and most of UK's bench signaling Kentucky ball, Jones indicated Georgia had possession.
Sutton didn't have to move to get in Jones' face. No less than five seconds later, the UK coach was hit with a technical.
"He missed the call; Mr. Jones missed the call," Sutton said. "I was close enough. I saw it.
"I got a little too excited. I was out of line and deserved the technical."
It was costly. Jody Patton made one of two technical free throws, then hit a three-pointer to close UK's lead to 14-11.
Georgia concentrated on getting Kessler and Spencer involved as the second half started. Georgia's first three possessions and four of the first seven were directed at Spencer.
When the freshman center scored only once and fumbled away two feeds, he was benched.
Kessler scored eight points early in the half, the final three on a three- point play near the foul line. Sean Sutton picked up his fourth foul and went to the bench with 14:14 left.
The younger Sutton re-entered the game with 6:38 left, but had to be helped off the court at the three-minute mark when he suffered a blow to the back. Only a bruise, trainer Walt McCombs said.
Kessler's three-point play cut UK's lead to 43-36.
UK struck back. Mills threw a baseball pass over the Georgia press to Hanson for a layup. After Georgia missed twice, Mills took a feed from Ellis for a 12-footer that gave UK its largest lead to that point, 47-36.
UK steadily pulled away and led by as much as 18, 67-49.