Date story published: Sunday, January 19, 1997
Kentucky struggled offensively again yesterday. The Cats shot their second lowest percentage of the season and matched an all-time low for three-point baskets in the Rick Pitino Era. They had one.
Three players left the game with injuries, the most significant being leading scorer Derek Anderson's bruised right knee.
Cause for concern? Nah. Not with the way Kentucky played defense. As it says in the proverbial Coaching 101 textbook, defense negates all problems.
Kentucky routed Auburn 77-53.
The Cats held Auburn to 34-percent shooting. It marked the eighth time in the last 10 games that UK's opponent shot less than 40 percent.
"I'm real happy with our defense," Pitino said. "We keep getting better and better."
Earlier in the week, Kentucky limited Georgia to 30-percent shooting.
"Two terrific defensive games where we went to war," Pitino said. "We're a team that feeds off our defense. If we keep building on that mentality, I know the offense will come."
Georgia and Auburn's struggles left the Southeastern Conference shooting just 36.2 percent against UK through five league games. The Cats improved to 16-2 overall and 4-1 in the SEC despite shooting only 42.9 percent in league games.
"If we were shooting 55 percent and the opponents 50 percent, I'd be very concerned," Pitino said, "because great teams play at the championship level on defense."
Not that Kentucky is satisfied with its offense. Sophomore Ron Mercer's shooting slump continued. He made only eight of 22 shots. Worse, you could almost see him thinking his way through a shot rather than just letting it go. "I'm thinking 'don't miss the shot,' " he said. "Then I miss it."
Actually, Mercer elevated his shooting accuracy in league play yesterday. He came into the game shooting 31 percent against SEC teams and inched it up to 32.5 (26 of 80). But that wasn't why Pitino rated it a "good night" for Mercer. The coach thought his sophomore star responded in the second half to a suggestion: Don't worry about the ball going through the hoop; look for ways to score other than the jump shot.
"You've got to run the lanes, make steals, create post-ups and you have to go to the line," Pitino said. "It was a valuable lesson for Ron to learn. I told him, 'I want you to have 20 shots. They have to be of a different variety.' "
Mercer made only five of his first 19 shots. But his five straight points - a patented dunk off a lob, a free throw off being fouled in the low post and a layup - helped Kentucky break the game open mid-way through the second half.
"I realize I can't rely on my jump shot all the time," Mercer said. "I try to look at what Derek does. I tried that in the second half, and it worked."
Mercer's two steals, one block and four of his five rebounds came in the second half.
Anderson professed to never worrying about a shot going in. "I don't know what a slump is," he said. But he said he understood why even a player as good as Mercer might be struggling mentally. "It's part of growing up," Anderson said. "A guy could have a 4.0 (grade-point average) and not know how to put a Rubik's cube together."
Overall, Kentucky made just 40.9 percent of its shots. Only a 40.2-percent night against Ohio State has been worse this season. Yet Pitino dismissed the notion that he might be concerned with UK's shooting. "I'm concerned with the type of shots," he said. "We're not mixing it up. We're not going inside. We're not driving as much as we should."
The UK coach also shrugged off the injuries as part of the game. "One thing I never concern myself with is injuries," he said. "That's why you have a bench. That's why you have 13 scholarships. When the team realizes you're losing something by injury, you lose something. When they realize you don't care and it's not very important, then they realize, 'I'm on scholarship. I'll step up.' "
Point guard Anthony Epps bruised his right rotator cuff in the first minute of the second half when he ran into a pick set by Auburn center Pat Burke. He left the floor for treatment but returned to play 10 minutes in the second half. "I didn't see it coming," Epps said. "It hurts when I raise it up, so I'm icing it and we'll see what happens. I just put it all in (UK trainer "Fast" Eddie Jamiel's) hands."
Anderson bruised his knee about six minutes later as he turned to head upcourt.
"I slipped and my knee just hit the ground," he said. "Like your head hits the ground and you have a headache, that's how it felt."
Anderson hurt his knee at the 13:55 mark. He returned with 11:02 left, but then left the game for good at 8:43. He sat on the bench the rest of the way with an ice pack on his knee and gimpily walked off the court as the game ended. Team doctor David Caborn said Anderson should be fine when UK plays Vanderbilt on Wednesday in Cincinnati.
Freshman center Jamaal Magloire went down seven seconds after Anderson sustained the knee injury. He caught an elbow on the chin from Auburn's Franklin Williams as they jockeyed to rebound a missed free throw. "I think he was giving me a shot," Magloire said. "It's all part of the game. We're too conditioned mentally and physically to let that get to us."