Date story published: Wednesday, January 10, 1996
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Kentucky sent a message to the Southeastern Conference last night. Second place might be all UK's conference brethren can achieve this season.
Kentucky thoroughly outplayed Mississippi State, the only other unbeaten SEC team. The 74-58 victory disappointed an early-to-come, early-to-leave record State crowd. It probably also sent a wave of resignation throughout the SEC.
Kentucky, which equaled the longest winning streak of the Pitino era with its 11th straight, never trailed. A suffocating defense contained State's dangerous two-pronged attack: center Erick Dampier inside and a group of three-point shooters.
Dampier had only two baskets until the final 2:20. He finished with 14 points. Marcus Bullard, the league's most accurate three-point marksman (57.1 percent), missed all four shots from beyond the arc.
Collectively, UK made a mockery of State's glittering shooting statistics. The SEC's best shooting team (51.9 percent) shot a season-low 34.7 percent and scored a season-low 56 points.
Throw in a season-high 28 turnovers, and no wonder State suffered its worst home loss since 1988. Yes, UK got that one, too: 83-59.
"We don't have anybody in practice who can imitate what they do," Bullard said. "All you can do is look at film. But we don't have that kind of depth to give us a true idea of what you face when you play Kentucky. They're very deserving to be the No. 1 team in the country."
Actually, UK is No. 2 with an overall record of 12-1 and SEC mark of 2-1. UK Coach Rick Pitino linked the devastating defense to the November loss to No. 1 Massachusetts. UMass center Marcus Camby ruined that night for UK. Dampier did not.
"Against UMass, we doubled down, but we didn't trap down to get guys on their heels," Pitino said. "The key was coming out of the trap (and defending the perimeter). Tonight, we were spectacular."
State, which had won six straight, fell to 10-2 overall and 2-1 in the SEC. Afterward, Coach Richard Williams harshly criticized most of his players.
"Other than Darryl Wilson and Russell Walters, the rest of our players -- well, I don't want to say weren't ready -- they didn't play well," he said. "We could have played a perfect game and not beat Kentucky. It's certainly not good enough when guys are doing their own thing and guys are worrying about their shots not going in. It was just a good whipping."
A record crowd of 10,315 and national television audience had reason to expect a clash of the titans. (State's old record crowd was the 10,303 that saw the Bulldogs beat LSU March 2, 1991, for a share of the league title.)
Kentucky, which led 32-24 at the break, contained Dampier. UK's big men stayed on the perimeter much of the half. That drew Dampier away from the basket and limited his considerable intimidation.
Kentucky emphasized the three-pointer much of the half. Half of the Cats' first 20 shots came from beyond the three-point line.
At the other end, UK collapsed on Dampier whenever he got the ball near the basket. As a result, he scored only two first-half baskets. Neither came in the set offense. Both came as State managed to beat UK's constant pressing and found the big man under the basket.
"You have to understand the difference in skill level in their 6-8 players and everybody else's," Williams said. "Very few teams are lucky to have the big players like they do who have the skill level they do."
As expected, UK's pressure caused State to turn the ball over. State, which ranks last among SEC teams in turnover margin, gave up the ball on four of its first six possessions.
State's early turnovers helped the Cats score the game's first seven points. Kentucky led by as much as 30-16 late in the half.
The Cats even limited their fouling, yet another objective reached. UK did not pick up his seventh foul until the 2:57 mark. "Pressing without fouling, that was a key to the game," Pitino said.
The second half began with the teams reversing roles from the game's opening minutes. This time UK started slowly.
State scored the half's first six points. The final five electrified the crowd. Wilson hit a three. Then after Delk missed a quick-shot three-pointer, Bullard put up a lob in transition that Dontae Jones flushed. Suddenly, UK's lead was down to 32-30, and the crowd was roaring.
Delk, who suffered through a 1-for-5 first half, stepped up. He drove the lane and scooped a bank shot in while being fouled by Dampier. "I felt it was my job to get us a basket," Delk said. "I'm not intimidated by anyone."
A Wilson three-pointer reduced the lead to 41-38. A blitz of three-pointers put Kentucky in position for victory. Four straight three-pointers -- by Anthony Epps, Derek Anderson, Walter McCarty and Anderson again -- gave the Cats a 53-38 lead.
After a State timeout, Anderson scored an old-fashioned three-point play. His leaner and free throw completed a 15-0 run.