Date story published: Monday, February 10, 1997
If Villanova represented a test of how No. 3 Kentucky can handle wide bodies come NCAA Tournament time, the Cats answered with a resounding Bring-'em-on yesterday. Bring on Kansas, Wake Forest, Cincinnati and any other team that uses size to win basketball games.
Kentucky did more than hold its own with No. 16 Villanova. Though hardly Lilliputians themselves, the Cats did everything but leave the Villanova big men helplessly bound and tied to the Rupp Arena floor.
UK won 93-56, the second most lopsided loss for Villanova in 22 years. Who knows how long it's been since an opponent outrebounded Villanova 42-17? How long since an opponent had more offensive rebounds than the Villanova bruisers had total rebounds (22-17)?
As UK coaches stressed before the game, Villanova had been doing the dominating on the boards. The visitors came to Rupp Arena with the nation's sixth best rebounding margin - plus 9.1.
"They looked like rebounding demons," UK Coach Rick Pitino said. "And we made them look that way with our edits (of scouting report video)."
Another bit of mind-gamesmanship produced one of sophomore Ron Mercer's best games as a Kentucky player. Teammate Anthony Epps noted that Mercer somehow got possession of a couple of newspaper stories suggesting his counterpart for Villanova, freshman Tim Thomas, was a better player.
"Ron wanted to prove (Thomas) may be better, but (Mercer's) still up there with him," Epps said. "He was even hustling and diving after loose balls."
Mercer dominated Thomas much as UK dominated Villanova. Mercer had 23 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, matching his cumulative season-high total in those three statistical categories (he had 30 points, seven rebounds and three assists against Purdue in the Great Eight).
"I thought he was phenomenal," Pitino said. "By far, it was Ron Mercer's most aggressive and best game."
"That's the best I've ever seen him play," said teammate Jared Prickett, who contributed eight points and seven rebounds in his first game back from an ankle sprain. "He played with reckless abandon. When he plays like that, he's probably the best player in the nation."
"He made himself a couple million," Epps said of Mercer. "Right now, he's seeing a lot of dollar signs."
Mercer, who may (will?) turn pro after the season, excelled in front of 10 NBA scouts and Chicago Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause.
Pitino took the good (a solid Mercer performance in a big game) with the bad (it only enhanced Mercer's already lofty standing among NBA scouts).
"I'm very happy and pleased for Ron (but) it may be doom for us," Pitino said. "I don't want to lose him. I want him to stay. But if he plays like he did consistently the rest of the season, I'm going to say, 'Let's have fun at the NBA Draft.' "
Thomas, who described the game as "a whole lot of frustrations," had nine points, just one rebound and six turnovers.
Kentucky (22-3) met its objective of using its pressing, up-tempo style to limit the effectiveness of Villanova's 6-foot-11, 6-9 and 6-9 front line. Villanova committed a season-high 24 turnovers. Senior point guard Alvin Williams had a whopping 11 turnovers, the most embarrassing coming late in the first half when he lost control of the ball as he stumbled upcourt, finally swatting it forward.
"We thought our press could be effective," Epps said. "We didn't know they'd panic the way they did. When you've got 6-9, 6-9, 6-11 and two little men, we'll take advantage of that."
Teammate Allen Edwards echoed the thought. "They had three big guys who couldn't handle the ball," he said. "We pretty much wore out the other two guys."
Kentucky never trailed. The Cats jumped to a 22-8 early lead, stretched the margin to as much as 22 points late in the first half and 39 late in the second.
While Kentucky's effective pressing met expectations, no one predicted the Cats would dominate the boards. UK set the tone by scoring three of four baskets off second-chance opportunities. For the game, Kentucky outscored Villanova 25-4 in second-chance points.
Villanova, which came to Lexington averaging 16.2 offensive rebounds, had only six. Villanova had no offensive rebounds in its final 20 possessions of the first half and the first 16 of the second.
It wasn't like Villanova did not have opportunities to grab offensive rebounds. The visitors made only 36.8 percent of their shots in first half, when the game was still competitive.
"The fact we could force them to shoot 36 percent in the first half and limit them to four offensive rebounds is a fabulous job," Pitino said. "We flat-out got after it on the backboards."
Said Villanova Coach Steve Lappas: "We got out-everything, from coaching to playing, you name it. This game had no flow to it because of what Kentucky was doing. We played a team today that wanted it more."