Date story published: Thursday, February 2, 1989
In Sean Sutton's mind, LeRon Ellis became "a man" last night at Rupp Arena. Ellis certainly manhandled Mississippi State, scoring 21 points to lead Kentucky to a 73-61 victory.
Chris Mills added 19, including three clutch three-pointers, as UK stayed in the thick of the Southeastern Conference race.
The Cats improved to 11-10 overall and 6-3 in the SEC. The latter tied UK for second with Vanderbilt, one game behind Louisiana State at the halfway point of the SEC's double round-robin.
Never miss a local story.
State, which got 17 points from freshman guard Tony Watts and 16 from a rather manly power forward named Cameron "Smoke" Burns, fell to 8-10 overall and 2-7 in the league.
UK never trailed in a performance about as flawless as basketball gets. The Cats committed just five turnovers.
Still, it wasn't easy. State stayed within striking distance, trailing by only seven with almost three minutes left.
That left both coaches pleased.
Though defeated, State's Richard Williams saw "a lot of things we can build on." For instance, "we didn't play intimidated like we have in the past," Williams said. "We played."
State hasn't beaten UK in Lexington since 1967. "Maybe we'll get a win here before I die," said Williams, at 43 the youngest SEC coach.
UK coach Eddie Sutton got the victory and a performance that suggested more to come.
"If we play like this every night, we can play with most people in the league," Eddie Sutton said. "We had a great scouting report." And the Cats followed it.
Especially Ellis, who made a distant memory of his two-point game at Mississippi Saturday, the latest valley in the sophomore center's up-and-down season.
"He's like anybody," Sean Sutton said. "He probably got tired of people getting on him. That makes you buck up if you're a competitor and LeRon's a competitor. He was a man out there."
Ellis hit eight of 12 shots, grabbed nine rebounds, had five assists and did not commit a turnover.
"LeRon played the best he's played in a long time," Eddie Sutton said. "It would be very hard to fault him."
Ellis credited better concentration for his improved play. "Basically, I was more intense," he said.
Eddie Sutton pointed to a talk he had with Ellis before yesterday's game. The topic was Mississippi State's vulnerability inside, the UK coach said.
Defense and hustle propelled Kentucky to control of the first half and a 33-23 lead at intermission.
The Cats, Reggie Hanson in particular, shut off Mississippi State's top scorer, Burns. The power forward averaged averaged 13.7 points entering the game, but managed only two first-half shots. Both came in the final 2:21.
By then, UK had already established a lead that grew to as much as 11.
"He's only 6-6 and it's hard to lob to a guy like that," Williams said. "We rely on our perimeter people to get him the ball. People know that. We're not getting a lot of scoring from our small forward (Greg Carter, who had two points last night). People know that."
Besides holding Burns in check, Kentucky's hustle also contributed to the first-half lead. When a Hanson jumper fell short because he was hit across the face, Mills was first to react. Mills grabbed the loose ball and tucked in a nifty reverse layup. The shot drew a cheer and lifted UK into a 23-12 lead.
Ellis and Deron Feldhaus would have won hustle awards. Ellis needed only until the 16:21 mark to match the four-point game he had at Mississippi Saturday.
Ellis' two early baskets kept UK ahead in the early jockeying for position.
Feldhaus went to the floor repeatedly. He grabbed two offensive rebounds, part of a 13-6 edge UK enjoyed on the boards.
Both of Feldhaus' rebounds led to UK baskets, part of 12 points the Cats got on second-chance opportunities.
"The difference in the game was our inabilitiy to eliminate second shots in the first half," Williams said.
State stayed in the game by making 10 of its 15 first-half shots (66.7 percent).
As the second half began, State showed a greater interest in getting the ball to Burns down low. Burns made the most of the attention, scoring 10 of State's first 14 points.
Burns' run helped State close to within 36-31.
After a television timeout with 14:54 left, the Cats switched to a 2-3 zone.
The switch seemed to confuse State, which got only a Burns post-up basket in almost six minutes.
"We've attacked zones pretty well," Williams said, "but they're so darn big; (Mike) Scott and Ellis inside and Miller at the point."
In that span, UK went on a 10-2 run that expanded its lead to 52-37.
A couple of three-pointers from an unlikely source -- Mills -- highlighted the run. Mills entered the game having made just four of 13 three-pointers in SEC play (30.8 percent) and just nine of 32 overall (28.1 percent).
Mills hit three three-pointers, the third giving UK its 15-point lead with 9:34 left.
"After the first one fell, I felt comfortable," Mills said. "I didn't feel bashful putting it up."
Three-pointers helped Mississippi State keep Kentucky from blowing the game open.
The Bulldogs hit three in a row over UK's zone to close within 54-46. More than seven minutes remained.
State closed within 60-53 with 2:48 left, but UK clinched the victory at the foul line. The Cats made nine of 11 free throws over the next 90 seconds.