Date story published: Wednesday, January 8, 1997
The Big Blue heard the big boo in Rupp Arena last night.
No, Kentucky did not play up to its own exacting standard. Not that rebuilding Mississippi State seriously threatened UK. The Cats won 90-61, thanks to a second-half spurt.
But State did embarrass the Cats by repeatedly throwing over the press. Back-to-back long passes reaped layups midway through the second half sparked a chorus of boos.
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"That's about the first time in eight years the fans booed one of my teams," UK Coach Rick Pitino said. "I don't think it bothered me as much as surprised me. I never heard college fans boo a team. I've heard it in professional basketball."
Pitino declined to say whether the boos were justified. But he spent longer than usual in the locker room after the game expressing his disappointment to the players.
"He's pretty upset and frustrated with us," UK forward Jared Prickett said.
Added point guard Anthony Epps: "He was upset at us because we practiced so hard against that. It makes the coaches look bad, and people maybe think the coaches aren't stressing the right points."
Pitino said he could accept getting beat against the press once or twice. But State completed six long passes. Three reaped baskets.
"We didn't see the ball," Pitino said. "If you see the ball, it's easy to guard. If your head's down, you don't know if they've inbounded. It's advantage offense."
At least one player liked the boos: Mississippi State sophomore guard Bart Hyche. "You get 24,000 of the best fans in America and they're booing because you're doing good? That feels good!"
The good feeling was fleeting.
Coincidentally or not, UK's 22-1 breakout run came moments after many fans booed.
Derek Anderson led the way. After a foul-plagued first half, he scored 23 of his game-high 26 points in the second half. That included a career-high six three-pointers, five in the second half.
"We lost him in our zone," State Coach Richard Williams said. "They do such a good job in their zone offense. What they don't do, they don't line up in a zone offense where people are supposed to line up. We just lost him a lot of times. To his credit, he knocked them down. He's a great player."
Kentucky improved to 13-1 overall and 2-0 in the Southeastern Conference. Mississippi State, the last SEC team to beat UK in Rupp, fell to 7-8 overall and 1-1 in league play.
"We played just as hard as we could for as long as we could," Williams said. "Kentucky's depth wore us down. They had too many good players, too much depth and executed too well."
The first half wasn't the 55-17 nightmare Williams remembered from his second season here as Mississippi State's coach. In fact, Kentucky was slightly less dominating than usual in the opening 20 minutes.
That didn't mean a hotly competitive game. The Cats led 45-32 at the break. Through the first 13 games, UK had led by an average of 14 points.
Kentucky got off to its customary fast start. UK had led by double digits by the 12:36 mark of every game this season. The Cats led State 17-7 with 14:01 left in the half.
Maybe State's 2-3 zone defense prevented the usual Kentucky blowout. Maybe it was leading scorer Anderson picking up his second foul and departing at the 13:12 mark. He scored just three points, giving him 11 in the previous three halves.
But Ron Mercer, who like Anderson scored just eight points against Tennessee on Saturday, picked up the pace. He surpassed that point production by flipping in a shot in the lane and hitting the resulting free throw with 7:22 left. The three-point play reestablished a 10-point UK lead, 27-17.
It also ignited a 15-6 run that gave Kentucky its largest lead, 39-23. Mercer completed the breakout by rising high above the rim for a one-handed jam putback.
State, which ranked last among SEC teams in shooting, struggled to put points on the board. The Bulldogs went an average of 1 minute, 46 seconds between baskets. Leading scorer Horatio Webster didn't score until 49 seconds remained.
Anderson made up for lost time early in the second half. He scored 10 of Kentucky's first 12 points. That enabled the Cats to get back ahead by 16 points.
Anderson hit two three-pointers in the flurry. Between bombs, he cleanly separated State's Bart Hyche from the ball. He sped toward the basket with the steal, grabbing his missed shot for a putback.
State refused to wilt. Throwing a long pass over the UK press enabled the Bulldogs to stay within 10 points with less than 12 minutes left. It also brought out the boo-birds in Rupp.
Back-to-back State layups off long passes apparently angered several Cat fans. Hyche went long for a layup, then Webster repeated it in a 26-second span. The boos followed.
Kentucky eased out again. Allen Edwards' three-pointer keyed a run of 10 straight points. In that span, State turned the ball over five straight possessions, once on a long pass that went too long.