Date story was published: Sunday, January 21, 1990
Rick Pitino held up Wednesday night's victory over Alabama to his most exacting standard. He compared it to his sainted Providence team of 1986-87. UK executed Bama with heartless precision. Pitino had another film, he said, to splice into textbook examples.
Yesterday, against Tennessee, the Cats had to get emotionally involved. That the Cats pulled out an unlikely 95-83 victory left Pitino more pleased than ever.
"I told the guys this one is more pleasing to me than the Alabama game, much more pleasing," Pitino said. "Because we had guys out there hyperventilating. They really were. And they were willing to throw it aside and hyperventilate and get the win. That's what basketball and character are all about."
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Those qualities compose what Pitino's brand of running, pressing basketball is about, too. When he came to UK in June, Pitino said his superior- conditioned teams controlled the final stretches of games. Behind early, ahead late. That's the ticket.
Yesterday, UK delivered, not so much by design, but by desperation.
For much of the game, Tennessee held the high ground in terms of execution.
In the first 30 minutes, the Vols were behind for 47 seconds. Two one-point deficits were all UT had to overcome.
Kentucky trailed by 15 early. The Cats were staring at an eight-point deficit as the game entered its final 10 minutes.
Then, riding Derrick Miller's invigorating three-point shooting, UK outscored leg-weary Tennessee 34-14 over the final 10:24 to win going away.
In a 53-second span, Miller hit three three-pointers. The momentum Miller ignited devoured Tennessee. UK made 58.6 percent of its second-half shots, providing that many more opportunities to set its press.
The second-largest crowd in Rupp Arena history -- 24,245 -- refreshed the Cats with its roars. The only larger crowd was the 24,288 that saw UK play Louisiana State last January.
"When you're exhausted, you need something to pick you up," Pitino said. "We had 24,000 people lifting us up to another level."
Tennessee, the Southeastern Conference co-leader, wilted. The Vols fell to 9-6 overall and 4-2 in the SEC.
UK evened its overall record at 8-8, 4-3 in the SEC.
"I went through this type of game 10 times my first year at Providence, 15 times the second year," Pitino said. "Only we didn't really shoot the ball like that, where we had to fight and do everything we could to come back."
Tennessee jumped on Kentucky early. In the first six minutes, the Vols zipped to a 21-6 lead. UT hit 10 of its first 17 shots. Freshman Steve Rivers had 10 of his 15 points during the period. He also blocked a John Pelphrey layup attempt, then boldly taunted the UK sophomore.
At the 14:08 mark, UK had six turnovers, two spent timeouts and a hobbled point guard (Sean Woods was accidentally kicked on the left ankle).
"We just didn't have it," Pelphrey said. "It was one of those nights where you try everything. We were a step slow and the shots were not going down."
Kentucky rallied with three-pointers. At one point, three-pointers accounted for four straight Cat baskets.
UK had eight treys in the half, yet it trailed 44-39 at the break. UT had outrebounded the Cats 27-19, had more steals (7-6) and fewer turnovers (14-13).
"At halftime, I told them, 'You don't have it tonight,' " Pitino said. "There are games like that. The only thing you have is heart and guts. That's it. You have the ability to wear them down. If you wear them down, you won't be facing the same team in the second half.
"If you don't make them fatigued, you're not going to win. Right now, they're better than you are tonight."
The second half began with a discouraging repeat of the game's opening minutes. Tennessee hit its shots (seven of the first eight), while UK floundered. The Vols' one miss bounced off Deron Feldhaus' forehead, leaving center Ian Lockhart with an easy layup.
"All we were doing was hanging in there," Pelphrey said. "I was very concerned because the first seven or eight minutes of the second half didn't look any better."
Tennessee built its second-half leads to as much as 12. The Vols led 67-57 with 11:40 left.
Suddenly, UK got in gear and Tennessee faltered. Two staples of Pitino's brand of basketball -- the three-point shot and the press -- turned the game around.
With UK trailing 69-61, Miller hit three straight three-pointers, the third cutting the deficit to 72-70.
"The three-pointers hurt us," Tennessee coach Wade Houston said. "And when they missed, they'd get the rebounds for put-backs."
UK took the lead for good when Richie Farmer, who had no assists and four turnovers in the first half, drove to a left-handed layup.
"Somebody must have smacked him in the face," Pelphrey said of Farmer's seven-assist, one-turnover second half. "He played great."
Back-to-back baskets by freshman Carlus Groves cut UK's lead to 82-78. But Tennessee had only one other basket in the final nine minutes: a meaningless three-pointer with 36 seconds left.
"I think we got a little tired," Houston said. "I tried to play a lot of people in the first half and just stay as fresh as we possibly could. But I have to say we got tired. Down the stretch, we couldn't get the loose balls. And the shots weren't falling. Those are signs of legs getting tired. We weren't as sharp and alert getting rebounds as we were in the first part of the game."
Tennessee could not count on promising freshman guard Allan Houston, the coach's son, to come to the rescue. Houston was preoccupied with breaking UK's press, and he made only three of 17 shots.
"We almost had to sacrifice Allan a little," Wade Houston said. "He had to bring the ball up against the press. It's hard to handle the ball, break the press and then come down and be that tough at the other end also."
Someday, Houston will be great, even though he's now made just six of his last 35 shots, Pitino said.
Not yesterday. He was too tired.
"They stepped it up a notch," Allan Houston said. "We went down a notch."