Date story published: Sunday, December 22, 1996
ATLANTA - Rusty or not, Scott Padgett got the call less than two minutes into Kentucky's game last night.
"When Coach called me in that early, I thought 'Uh-oh, I better get in there and do something,' " said Padgett, who missed last season and this season's first eight games because of academic difficulties.
Padgett did, indeed, do something. When he returned to the bench for a rest barely five minutes later, the sophomore from Louisville already had surpassed his career high in scoring. That burst helped propel a steadily improving Kentucky team to a 88-59 victory over Georgia Tech.
Padgett finished with 12 points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes, all career highs. Not that his previous highs from a nondescript freshman season of 1994-95 towered like Mount Everest (seven points against Boston U., four rebounds against LSU and seven minutes against Boston U. and Marshall).
"There was a big difference," Padgett said of his play last night and as a freshman. "When I got in, it mattered. When I got in as a freshman, it didn't matter what I did. We were ahead by 30 points. Tonight it was important that I not only play, but play well."
Kentucky also got a lift from one of its young centers. Sophomore Nazr Mohammed had career highs in points (18) and rebounds (12), which compensated for struggling nights from senior Jared Prickett (no points or rebounds, and five fouls) and freshman Jamaal Magloire (no points, two rebounds).
Combined with routine excellence from its reliable one-two punch, Derek Anderson and Ron Mercer, third-ranked Kentucky overwhelmed Georgia Tech. UK improved to 8-1 while handing Tech its most lopsided loss since 1991 (98-57 at Duke).
"Sometimes teams coming out of (final) exams don't play their best," UK Coach Rick Pitino said. "We had a lot of intensity. We played good defense. When you hold a team to five assists, you're playing good defense."
Tech (4-3) had 22 turnovers to go with its five assists.
A couple of unlikely players, Padgett and Mohammed, helped Kentucky take a commanding 51-32 halftime lead. Each scored a career-high 12 points in the first half.
Padgett made a mockery of Pitino's pre-game talk of rustiness. Entering the game at the 18:10 mark for Prickett, Padgett scored 10 of UK's first 14 points. He equaled his previous career-high of seven with 13:54 left. He topped it 40 seconds later with a three-pointer.
Pitino wanted scoring when he inserted Padgett. "They were sagging a little bit off our big people to try to stop (Mercer and Anderson)," the UK coach said. "I thought he could step out and hurt them with that because he is a good shooter."
Forty-two seconds after entering the game, Padgett swished a three. "I thought it would be an air ball," he said. "When it went in, I got excited."
Padgett almost had to shoot considering he was guarded by Tech center Eddie Elisma.
"I was surprised and thought maybe they don't know my position," Padgett said. "He was playing on the block. My eyes sort of lit up. I don't think I've ever been that open. Ever."
Mohammed broke a monopoly on Cat scoring enjoyed by Padgett and Mercer. Those two players scored UK's first 16 points. Mohammed abused Elisma inside.
"I love him and want to kill him at the same time," Pitino said of Mohammed. "If he moved his feet, he'd get 18 rebounds instead of reaching."
Speaking of abuse, Anderson took advantage of Tech freshman Jon Babul for eight points.
UK dictated a helter-skelter pace. The up-and-down game aggravated Tech's knack for turnovers. The Yellow Jackets committed 21 turnovers at Temple and 20 at Maryland in back-to-back lopsided losses in their last two games. The turnover count by halftime reached 13, more than enough to negate some good work on the offensive board.
"I thought we were in the game," Tech Coach Bobby Cremins said. "I thought we were right there. We were attacking the press pretty good. When we got behind by more than 10 points, we did what we did the last two games. We kind of fell apart. We don't have that cohesiveness."
Except for Matt Harpring and an unfriendly whistle, the Cats dominated the half. Harpring led Tech with 18 points, and would have had more had he shot better than 11-for-16 at the foul line. He finished with a game-high 25 points.
The referees whistled Kentucky for 14 fouls by halftime. No player had more than two. With a 19-point lead, the fouls did not appear to present a serious problem.
The second half proved that correct.