Date story published: Sunday, December 4, 1988
INDIANAPOLIS -- Suddenly, the "Death Penalty" seemed attractive.
Anything -- even the ultimate NCAA sanction -- compared favorably to the 81-65 beating Notre Dame handed Kentucky yesterday in the Big Four Classic.
For the record, UK does not qualify for the "Death Penalty" -- termination of a program -- should the current NCAA investigation result in sanctions.
All the same, UK looked lifeless enough yesterday to flirt with a defeat of historic proportions.
Only a 41-20 loss in 1936 was more lopsided in the 46-game UK-Notre Dame series. The Cats trailed by as many as 24 (77-53) with 2:50 left.
Rebounding, all agreed, pulled the plug on UK. Notre Dame outrebounded the Cats 53-27. The Irish converted those rebounds into a 24-8 advantage in second-chance points.
"When the other team gets almost as many offensive rebounds (25) as you get total, you know you're in trouble," UK coach Eddie Sutton said. "That's the thing more than anything that beat us. Today, we did just a horrendous job."
Added John Pelphrey, more succinctly: "They cooked us."
It didn't help that LeRon Ellis, one of UK's two big men, missed practices Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday because of the flu. He was still weak enough not to start and grabbed but four rebounds.
"Sean (Sutton) missed one day and so did Richie Farmer," the UK coach said. "That's not an excuse for losing. We just got beat by a better ballclub. I've never seen our guys play quite that poorly. But there are days we don't play very well. That's to be expected with a young team."
Notre Dame, which has no seniors on its roster, led throughout the final 32 minutes. UK, now 2-3, got no closer than 11 in the second half.
"Basically, our game plan was to keep the press on the whole game, pound on the boards and run our transition game," Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps said, "and we did all three."
Notre Dame's 30-12 first-half rebounding edge produced a 40-27 lead at intermission. The Irish outscored UK 13-4 on second-chance opportunities.
Freshman sensation LaPhonso Ellis, wide-body Scott Paddock and burly Keith Robinson did much of the damage. Ellis and Paddock combined for more first- half rebounds (16) than UK's team (12).
"You have to consider our height," said LaPhonso Ellis, who finished with 12 points and 16 rebounds. "We're all pretty good rebounders. Going into the game, we knew we could win if we played aggressively."
UK, by contrast, seemed passive, especially on the boards.
"We weren't boxing out well in the beginning," LeRon Ellis said. "They were getting easy rebounds and that boosted their confidence.
"When we tried, they had their confidence so high, they weren't paying attention."
At times, Notre Dame played volleyball on the offensive glass. After four missed shots, Robinson tapped in a fifth rebound to give the Irish their first 10-point lead, 29-19.
Later, Paddock dunked a third-chance opportunity, making it 34-24. Fouled on the play, Paddock missed the free throw. But LaPhonso Ellis snatched the rebound and dunked it home.
"They're a very good rebounding team, but we certainly didn't do a good job screening off the glass," Sutton said. "
Subpar halves by Reggie Hanson, LeRon Ellis and Mills also contributed to the uphill climb facing the Cats.
The trio had accounted for 67.1 percent of UK's points before yesterday. In the first half, Mills, Hanson and Ellis had only one basket each 15 minutes into the game.
"They sort of had a box-and-one defense," Mills said. "A lot of the time, he was trying to deny the pass in. I don't know if our guys were scared to try to pass in or what."
The rebounding -- or lack thereof -- and poor offense wasted a good UK start. The Cats controlled the tempo early, sneaking to a 5-2 lead.
"Then the bottom fell out," Pelphrey said.
Ironically, a Kentuckian helped turn the tide. Kevin Ellery, a former star at Washington County High, drilled a three-pointer to give Notre Dame its first lead, 7-5. Ellery added three more three-pointers and led the Irish with 15 points.
"I'm happy for him because he was looking for something like that seeing as how he comes from Kentucky," Phelps said. "Last year he didn't play well against Kentucky (0-for-2 from the field in seven minutes). He was ready to play today."
Ellery jumpstarted the Irish in the second half, too.
Point guard Tim Singleton, yet another Irish hero, sparked an early Notre Dame rush. Singleton stripped Pelphrey of the ball and drove for a layup that made it 46-29.
On the next possession, he enduced the befuddled Pelphrey into charging.
"If you were careless at all, that's all he needed," Pelphrey said, "a split second."
Sutton substituted his son for Pelphrey and the Cats made a charge.
Five post-up points from LeRon Ellis and a Derrick Miller three-pointer brought UK to within 48-37 with 14:04 left.
Notre Dame called time, but UK fans got to continue their one chance to cheer when LeRon Ellis blocked LaPhonso Ellis' shot in the lane.
With the UK partisans now roaring, Hanson ducked into the lane for a jump hook. The meek shot never reached the basket.
Ellery then faked Deron Feldhaus off the floor and delivered a short jumper and three-point play. That made it 51-37 and started an 8-0 run, concluded by another Ellery three-pointer, that effectively buried the Cats.
Asked what he thought when UK closed to within 48-37, Sutton smiled and said, "I hoped we could sustain the momentum. But we still had a good mountain to climb."