Date story published: Sunday, March 9, 1997
MEMPHIS - Six words Kentucky fans probably never thought they'd read: "Without Cameron Mills, we don't win."
But that's exactly what UK Coach Rick Pitino said after the Cats beat Ole Miss 88-70 yesterday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals.
Mills, who came to UK as a walk-on, scored a career-high 14 points (two less than he had in his first two seasons as a Cat). That nicely complemented a big performance from Ron Mercer and put Kentucky in position for the school's 21st SEC Tournament championship, and fifth in six years.
The Cats will play Georgia, a school that offered Mills a scholarship out of high school, in today's finals. Georgia beat regular-season champion South Carolina in the other semifinal, a mild upset that probably eliminated UK's chief competitor here from contention for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
After endorsing Mills as player of the game, Pitino noted the junior guard's strong self-confidence.
"He's got tremendous guts," Pitino said. "He's really the last man on the team; we put him in against Arkansas, and he thinks he's Larry Bird. He has tremendous moxie ."
Mills' previous career high, 12, came in Kentucky's 83-73 victory at Arkansas in January. Like Super Bowl Sunday in Fayetteville, necessity brought the best from Mills. Kentucky needed Mills against Arkansas because of Derek Anderson's season-ending knee injury. Against Ole Miss, a sore back limited Allen Edwards to two minutes. So up stepped Mills in a storybook performance that even Rebel Coach Rob Evans had to admire.
"For him to be a walk-on and get that kind of playing time and contribute the way he did shows he's got great work ethic," Evans said of Mills. "It's great for college basketball for him to have that kind of success."
For a second straight game here, Kentucky played with urgency. Pitino did not attribute UK's mostly crisp play to revenge for a 73-69 regular-season loss at Ole Miss.
"We understand this is what basketball's all about," the UK coach said of the post-season. "In March, you have to pick up your level, psychologically and physically, in every aspect."
Whatever the motivation, Kentucky's heightened sense of purpose did not escape Ole Miss's attention. "Kentucky came out real sharp," sophomore guard Keith Carter said. "They outworked us and outhustled us all over the court."
Mercer made six of his first eight shots, and scored 13 of his team-high 19 points inside the first 12 minutes. That propelled Kentucky to a 33-19 lead.
Mercer went from feast to famine. He didn't make another basket until deep in the second half. Kentucky held Ole Miss to a single basket for more than 11 minutes. Yet, the Rebels rallied - once reducing the UK lead to four points late in the first half - by making 12 of 15 free throws during that stretch.
As Ole Miss reduced the lead, Pitino could be seen asking Edwards if he could play. Edwards shook his head from side to side.
But Kentucky has been resilient and resourceful if nothing else this season. So, as if on cue, Mills provided relief. He hit several clutch shots to steady Kentucky. UK went to the junior from Lexington with the first half's final possession. As an Ole Miss defender leaped at him, thus denying a three-point attempt, Mills calmly faked the shot, then swished a 15-foot leaner.
Mills opened the second half with a three-pointer, the last of his career-high four on the day. That ignited a 10-2 run to start the half that established UK's largest lead, 55-36, with 16:51 left.
"Today, Cameron, mainly, stepped in for (Edwards) and really came up huge for us," Pitino said. "He's a great offensive player. When I see him on offense, I smile a lot. When I see him on defense, I want to commit suicide."
That was a joke.
As if trading the lead role back and forth, Mills gave way to Mercer down the stretch. Mills did not score again after opening the second-half with a trey.
After Ole Miss reduced its deficit to 79-68 with almost three minutes left, Mercer came through. He hadn't made a basket since the 8:30 mark of the first half. Yet he came off a screen to hit a perimeter jumper with 2:38 left to ease the heightened tension on the UK bench. It was Mercer's only basket of the second half, his only basket of the game's final 28 minutes and 30 seconds.
"Great players step up," the Ole Miss coach said. "Ron Mercer is a great player. He's put the team on his back, especially since Derek got injured."
Yesterday, Mills helped with the lifting.