Date story published: Thursday, February 20, 1997
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - Sometimes basketball is not that complicated. When Kentucky needed baskets down the stretch, the Cats looked for Ron Mercer to score them.
He did, and UK came away with a hard-fought 75-61 victory at Alabama last night.
Mercer scored 11 of his game-high 23 points down the stretch to help the Cats finally put away an Alabama team playing one of its better games of the season.
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It didn't take a genius to figure out Kentucky's defensive game plan, either. Because of injuries and suspensions, Alabama had no choice but to play point guard Brian Williams all 80 minutes last week. So UK planned to give the Tide's iron man 40 hellish minutes of pressure defense. "Our whole thought process tonight was just wear Williams out," UK Coach Rick Pitino said.
Williams, who had only six turnovers in last week's 80 minutes, committed 11 in his 40 minutes against the Cats. "Did he?" said UK guard Wayne Turner. "Oh wow! That's what we wanted."
UK freshman Jamaal Magloire gave the game a surprise element. The Canadian's 13 points matched the most he's scored since Jan. 4. He contributed four blocked shots to UK's season-high total of 11.
With Mercer in foul trouble, Magloire became Kentucky's go-to guy for part of the second half. After Alabama reduced a one-time 13-point second half deficit to six, UK called a 20-second timeout with 5:10 left. The Cats went to Magloire, who missed a shot from the low post.
But Magloire delivered on Kentucky's next possession. After the Tide got within four, he hit a baby hook while being fouled .
"He gave us a big lift," Pitino said . "It doesn't look that pretty, but he's making an attempt to score. We were trying to pound it inside because (Alabama) is not a double-down team that much."
Magloire helped UK weather Mercer's foul trouble. The Cats' super sophomore went to the bench with his third foul at the 13:27 mark. He returned at 10:58. Eleven seconds later, he hit a three-pointer to extend Kentucky's lead to 48-39.
Later in the half, when Alabama kept reducing UK's lead to single digits, Mercer responded again and again. Twice he hit three-pointers. A third time he dunked. All three baskets helped preserve UK's most contentious victory in the post-Derek Anderson portion of the season.
"Ron took over the game when we had to," Pitino said.
Pitino helped Mercer play the hero. When Mercer picked up his fourth foul with 6:15 left, the Cats led 57-48. Thereafter, Pitino alternated Mercer and Turner, Mercer for offense and Turner for defense.
"I was a little bit rested that way," Mercer said.
Kentucky improved to 25-3 overall and 11-2 in the Southeastern Conference. The latter kept the Cats within a game of Eastern Division leader South Carolina. Alabama, which lost its 12th game in the last 16, fell to 14-12 overall and 4-9 in the SEC.
"I really liked our mental toughness down the stretch, offensively and defensively," Pitino said. "We executed the best when we had to. It was not a great game for us, but it was a great victory."
Kentucky made only 38.2 percent of its shots. But stingy - bordering on suffocating - defense enabled the Cats to assume a 32-24 halftime lead.
Alabama made barely a quarter of its first-half shots (25.8 percent), and that stat seemed inflated. UK's defense took over in the final six minutes of the half. In that time, the Cats went on a 13-0 run to take control.
M.C. Mazique's three-pointer gave Alabama a 21-19 lead with 6:26 left. The Tide scored only one more basket the rest of the half: a Williams trey with 27 seconds left that set the halftime score.
During one stretch late in the half, Alabama went nine straight possessions without getting the ball to the rim. UK blocked five straight shots, and six of seven Tide possessions ended with rejections in that stretch. The exception: UK's aggressive post defense caused Demetrius Alexander to lose control of the ball.
Mercer led the way. His 12 first-half points included a couple momentum builders. Early in the game, he seemed to climb over a pack of rebounders to rebound-dunk a missed shot.
Later, Mercer's defense caused Alabama's leading scorer, Eric Washington, to get caught in the air with nowhere to go. UK converted the turnover as Mercer hit a banker off the fast break.
Mercer contributed four points to UK's 13-0 breakout run.
The second half began with promise for Kentucky. With a TV timeout at 15:13, Alabama had only one basket. The timeout came after Williams threw away a pass against the press.
Then momentum swung Alabama's way.
A technical foul on Alabama Coach David Hobbs helped extend UK's lead to 52-39. He was called for protesting a no-call when Williams went to the floor as he drove for the basket. Anthony Epps made both free throws. Magloire's tip-in completed a four-point possession.
The Tide rallied repeatedly. Just as often, it seemed, Mercer stepped up and hit a big shot.
"They got to their All-American guy, and he delivers," Hobbs said. "That's why he's an All-American. And that's why they're the third-ranked team in the country."