Date story published: Wednesday, February 26, 1997
KNOXVILLE - Kentucky Coach Rick Pitino did not want any pats on the back after UK's draining 74-64 victory at Tennessee last night.
"We just want to get the hell on the bus," he said. "I'm tired of 9:30 games. I'm tired of people in pin stripes. I'm just flat-out tired. I want to go to bed. Go have a beer and get the hell on the bus and get out of this state."
Mounting fouls and a press that lost its effectiveness in the second half conspired to hamper the Cats.
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But UK's superior experience made the difference down the stretch. The Cats made the plays in the final five minutes, outscoring the Southeastern Conference's youngest team 11-4 down the stretch.
UK improved to 27-3 overall and 13-2 in the SEC. Tennessee fell to 11-14 overall and 4-11 in the league.
Scott Padgett led UK with 24 points, none bigger than his three-pointer from the left corner with 4:16 left. That shot, one of a career-high four treys for Padgett, steadied a UK team wobbled by a makeshift lineup necessitated by 27 fouls.
"That was the play of the game for us," Pitino said Padgett's three, which gave the Cats a seven-point cushion. "All we talk about in our system is keep on attacking. Don't (hope) the clock runs out. That's how you get upset."
Ron Mercer, playing in his last regular-season game in his home state, added 19 points. He was leveled by a C.J. Black pick near mid-court early in game, setting the tone for a take-no-prisoners physical competition.
"I have my nose hurting," Mercer said of the damage done. "I was just trying to get back in the press. The last thing I saw was a big blur."
Black, who along with fellow freshman Charles Hathaway came to UT as a member of the "Bruise Brothers," said he did not intend to hurt Mercer. "I just wanted to get Brandon (Wharton, UT's point guard) open so he could get through the press."
Kentucky's press prevailed most of a wild first half that saw the Cats whistled for 18 fouls and Tennessee commit 21 turnovers. Tennessee called five timeouts trying to stop the turnovers. Pitino received his second technical foul of the season trying to get his version of justice from the officials.
All the while, Mercer was booed almost every time he touched the ball. "It wasn't that bad," Mercer said of his reception. "It wasn't as bad as I expected."
Mercer, who is scheduled to announce today that he will turn pro after the season, refused to tip his hand. "We'll see what happens," he said. "I still have some talking to do with my parents. I'm treating it sort of like the recruiting process. I want to make the right decision."
An incredulous Pitino, who said Monday that Mercer would say in 48 hours that this is his last collegiate season, assured reporters no surprise was in store.
Tennessee, which started three freshmen and two sophomores, must have looked like chum to the sharks in Kentucky's press. Tennessee turned over the ball on five of its first six possessions. At that point, UT Coach Kevin O'Neill substituted a relative graybeard, sophomore Aaron Green. It didn't help. He turned the ball over on the next two possessions.
In the first five minutes, Tennessee knocked down as many shots (one) as UK players (Mercer) in this roughhouse affair. Teammate Anthony Epps seemed to taunt the crowd as Mercer lay on the floor. He repeatedly raised his arms to the Tennessee students rejoicing in Mercer's temporary knockout. That was the only stain on Kentucky's 11-2 breakout to start the game. "I was upset when somebody, especially a great player like Ron, gets a hard pick like that," Epps said. "I thought that was disrespectful."
Mercer returned less than two minutes later to help fuel UK's widening advantage. The Cats increased their lead to as much as 36-20. Mercer, who had 12 of those points, set the widest first-half lead with a majestic cut and rise for a dunk in the half-court set.
Meanwhile, Tennessee floundered. The Vols committed 10 turnovers in their first 15 possessions. When UT managed to get the ball into the frontcourt, it shot reasonably well. That combination yielded an odd statistic: With 8:41 left, Tennessee was shooting 57 percent, yet trailing 26-12.
Just when it seemed Kentucky would not sweat, the fouls began to mount and Tennessee rallied. UT, which had not gone more than two straight possessions without a turnover until only 6:41 remained, went on a stunning 11-0 run that reduced UK's lead to 36-31. Free throws accounted for nine of the points.
Including in the run was a technical on Pitino with 4:21 left. It came after the refs whistled Cameron Mills for an obvious push on Hathaway. Pitino's only other technical of the season came in the first minute of the second half at Ole Miss.
Pitino got the technical not for protesting the call on Mills, but for the abundance of calls going against UK.
"I've more deserved 98.9 percent of my other technical fouls," the UK coach said. "All I said was, 'Would you stop calling all the ticky-tack fouls; otherwise we won't have five guys to put on the floor."
No cursing. No show-up-the-ref gestures. No satisfaction.
The technical led to a five-point trip downcourt for Tennessee. Suddenly, Tennessee stopped turning the ball over. The Vols went more than 10 minutes with only one turnover - an illegal screen set by Black.
As mounting fouls reduced Kentucky's manpower, poor shooting robbed the press of its teeth. The Cats went more than five minutes without a basket.
Tennessee closed within three points on two occasions. Padgett eased the tension. His three-pointer from the left corner with 4:16 left increased the lead to 67-60.