Date story published: Saturday, March 9, 1996
Not that Florida presented much of a problem in UK's Southeastern Conference Tournament debut yesterday. Despite one of Florida's best games of the season, Kentucky breezed 100-76.
The shave was self-administered, as evidenced by several players' Kojak- like bald heads. Florida merely served as this day's flavor of lollypop.
Antoine Walker inspired the mass shaving and playing. His 21 points -- and not even one of his counterproductive three-point attempts -- led UK to a school-record 26th straight victory.
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"He's the straw that stirs our drink," UK Coach Rick Pitino said of Walker. "He makes us great with his passing. He's got great skills for a 6-8 forward."
Walker also stirred several teammates to shave their heads: Derek Anderson, Allen Edwards, Anthony Epps, Tony Delk, Wayne Turner and Nazr Mohammed.
"Nobody wanted to," Epps said of the clean-shaven domes in the Louisiana Superdome. "After Antoine did it (Thursday), we figured anybody can do it. He loves to get (his hair) faded up. For him to shave shows he's for team unity."
Pitino saluted Walker's team-oriented play against Florida. The extroverted sophomore forward spearheaded UK's devastating inside attack (eight of 11 shooting) while forsaking his beloved, if inaccurate, perimeter shot (not even one three-point attempt).
"I told him as we were walking off the floor, 'You were the best player in the country,' " Pitino said, "'because you elevated everybody's game.' In the last four or five games, he's tried to play like Magic (Johnson, playmaker extraordinaire), not like Dominique (Wilkins, quick-draw gunner). We've become a great team because of him."
Kentucky improved to 27-1 in setting up a semifinal game against Arkansas today. The Cats won a 13th straight SEC Tournament game, improving their margin of victory in the run to 18.2 points.
Florida, which suffered its worst home-court defeat since 1958-59 when Kentucky came to Gainesville two weekends ago, played much better. The Gators made 52.7 percent of their shots, equaling a season high for a UK opponent (UMass also shot 52.7 percent). The Gators also made nine three-pointers, their most in a game since Dec. 20.
And still Kentucky prevailed by 24 points.
"That's how good a ballclub Kentucky is," Florida forward Brian Thompson said. Thompson, a senior who played on the Gators' Final Four team of 1994, nodded in the affirmative when asked whether UK was the best team he's played against. "Yeah," he said. "By far."
Better than recent Arkansas teams that won the 1994 national championship and lost to UCLA in last year's championship game? "Oh yeah, oh yeah," Thompson said. "It's their depth. Arkansas played a lot of guys. But there might be seven players (for Kentucky) who will be NBA players."
Florida (12-16) achieved its goal of preventing Kentucky's patented Mike Tyson first-half knockout or a demoralizing breakout during in the game. UK never scored more than seven straight points, no more than six straight in a competitive first half.
But a modest 5-0 Kentucky run in the first half's final 27 seconds loomed large. That nightmare sequence for Florida saw the Gators commit two turnovers while Jeff Sheppard made two free throws and Edwards swished a 25-foot three- point heave at the buzzer. Suddenly, a 44-40 game became a comfortable 49-40 halftime lead for Kentucky.
"The shot at halftime hurt them because they played great," Pitino said. "They really did."
The Cats led by nine despite getting only one basket from their point guards and shooting guards. Leading scorer Tony Delk made a jumper with 59 seconds left in the half.
Kentucky more than compensated inside. Derek Anderson and Walter McCarty chipped in with 18 and 15 points.
"What I liked about this game is we kept going inside," Pitino said. "We have the best post-up twos (shooting guards) and threes (small forwards) -- and even ones (point guards), for that matter -- around."
Not that further evidence was necessary, but this game served as additional proof that Kentucky has better fours and fives -- just better numbers, period -- than the SEC competition.
"We have more talent than them at every position," Pitino said of Florida. "And we back it up at every position."