Date story was published: Sunday, December 16, 1990
Kentucky's student-athletes were extraordinary during final exams last week, Rick Pitino said, but just ordinary, at best, yesterday against Tennessee-Chattanooga.
"I think we came out quite well," the UK coach said of last week's final exams. "I think we'll have an all-time high GPA (grade-point average) for this basketball team."
He will learn the grades Monday, Pitino said.
Unfortunately, and maybe not so coincidentally, the Wildcats could not dribble, shoot and play so expertly against UT-Chattanooga yesterday. UK won 86-70 in what Pitino termed a "rusty" performance.
"We sacrificed basketball for academics," Pitino said, "which is the way it should be. Anytime you can use academics as a reason for not playing up to par, that's the best reason you can have.
"It's going to happen," he said of the post-finals funk. "You're going to look this way. There is no choice. We were not crisp. We were a typical team coming out of exams."
Pitino linked Kentucky's ballhandling and shooting problems to shorter practices (reduced to 75 minutes) and the elimination of individual instruction sessions during final exams.
The Cats shot a season-low percentage, 41.5 percent, and committed 26 turnovers, the most since last season's infamous 150-95 loss at Kansas.
"We shoot so much and practice so hard," Pitino said of the team's normal preparation. "This was typical of a team that doesn't have the athletic ability to compensate and make up for that.
"We were not sharp in any phase of the game. We were very, very rusty. The practice and execution were not there."
Kentucky will need to regroup in a hurry, Pitino and several players said. The Cats take their 5-1 record to No. 7 Indiana Tuesday.
"I'm never going to apologize for winning," said John Pelphrey, who along with new starter Richie Farmer led UK with 17 points each. "We have a lot of things to work on. We've got to prepare for Indiana and play better. Everybody in this room knows that."
UK led from tipoff to final buzzer, but the Cats could not shake Chattanooga until a pivotal call and a string of three-pointers in the second half.
The call was a fourth foul on Chattanooga's leading scorer (18.2 ppg) and rebounder (10.2 rpg), center Keith Nelson. It came with 14:40 left and the Moccasins charging, having cut a 41-26 second-half Kentucky lead to 46-41.
Nelson, a Louisville native and transfer from Sullivan Business College, was called for fouling in a rebound scramble after Jamal Mashburn missed a three-pointer. Nelson ran to midcourt gesturing his innocence. His protests spilled over into postgame interviews.
"I thought I got pushed into my man," Nelson said. "You've got to expect things coming onto someone else's turf. Me being from Kentucky, I kind of expected it seeing previous games here. They call it 'corrupt Rupp.' Some of it showed today. It's like a Mafia thing. You can't touch it."
Chattanooga coach Mack McCarthy, whose frustrations with the officials culminated in a technical foul with 6:57 left, said Nelson's fourth foul snuffed his team's slim chances of winning.
"It kills us," McCarthy said. "We need him on the floor and he was on the floor for 16 minutes (actually 17 minutes). I thought, if we could keep him on the floor, we'd have a chance to take it inside."
Chattanooga got no closer than 46-41. Nelson finished with a team-high 12 points.
Three straight three-pointers in a 43-second span completed an 11-0 run and Kentucky established a 65-47 lead with just under 10 minutes left. Farmer hit the first, a bomb from the right side. Twenty-three seconds later, after a Chattanooga turnover, Reggie Hanson connected from the top of the key. Pelphrey added a psychological dagger to the heart 20 seconds later when he pulled up for a three-pointer off the fast break.
"That's part of our style," Pelphrey said. "Keep playing regardless of the time and score. Sooner or later, we'll have our run. Fortunately, it came at a good time."
Better ball movement, Pitino said, created the opportunities for the run of three-pointers.
'I told them to pass the ball more," Pitino said. "I said, 'You're holding on to it too long. That's why we're not getting easy shots.' I said, 'Things will open up if we pass more.' "
The final nine minutes might have been used to give the substitutes game experience. Not in this game.
With 4:14 left, and a 21-point lead reduced to 74-61, Pitino rushed such experienced hands as Hanson, Farmer, Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus into the game. Out went four freshmen: Henry Thomas, Carlos Toomer, Gimel Martinez and Mashburn.
"Don't blame the guys in there," Pitino said, "and I don't want to comment any more than that. I don't think it was their fault, totally."
Later in his postgame news conference, when asked about UK's shaky ball- handling, Pitino referred to his own problems with the officiating.
"We got hit pretty hard," he said. "We got hand-checked quite a bit. We have to get used to that. Tonight was no example of how we should handle the ball. We're better than we showed."
Won't Indiana hand-check just as aggressively?
"Not like that," the UK coach said. "The whistle will blow."