Date story published: Sunday, January 12, 1997
OXFORD, Miss. - As Ole Miss' 73-69 victory over Kentucky ended yesterday, wave after wave of students stampeded over press row to get near their heroes. Laughing security personnel quickly gave up trying to keep the court from getting as crowded with characters as a novel by William Faulkner, Oxford's gift to literature. A few giddy Rebel fans chinned themselves on a basket. Finally the Ole Miss team returned en masse from its locker room for a curtain call.
Yet despite the we-did-it rush of emotion, a victory by third-ranked Kentucky would have been more cause for wonderment. Ole Miss, which surely clinched the first national ranking in the school's sorry basketball history, trailed for only two minutes and 57 seconds all afternoon, and not at all in the game's final 28 minutes.
Although handicapped by injured Derek Anderson's scoreless 10 minutes, gritty Kentucky slowly and steadily chipped away at a 13-point, second-half deficit until it was gone. Ron Mercer's jumper tied it at 68-68 with 37.4 seconds left.
But the game's final half-minute resembled most of what preceded it. Ole Miss just played a little bit better. The Rebels made five of six free throws. And with the Cats trailing 71-69 in the final 10 seconds, point guard Anthony Epps threw away UK's last chance at victory when his cross-court pass sailed over an open Scott Padgett out of bounds.
Kentucky Coach Rick Pitino saw this as justice.
"If we would have won this game, we'd have been happy with it," he said. "We would have taken it. But we wouldn't have deserved it. The Ole Miss team deserved it."
Kentucky, a winner of 14 straight, fell to 14-2 overall and 2-1 in the Southeastern Conference. The loss snapped the Cats' regular-season SEC winning streak at 23 games. Ole Miss improved to 11-3 overall and 3-1 in the league.
The final play served as final fitting tribute to the Rebels' tireless devotion to in-your-face man-to-man defense. UK's final play called for Epps to penetrate the defense, then either dish to Mercer for a two-point shot from the left wing or throw back to Padgett outside the three-point arc on the right.
"For some reason, I never looked Scott's way," Epps said. "I believe he was open. I know if we get Ron the ball, we have a good chance of something good happening."
Padgett, who broke free off a screen, understood. "I'd probably look for Ron, too," he said. "He's not a bad guy to go to."
But when Epps looked to Mercer, he found the gifted sophomore blanketed by Ole Miss' Jason Smith. That left Epps no option but to throw a desperation pass cross court toward Padgett.
Ole Miss Coach Rob Evans credited a defensive change. The Rebels switched off on any screen. "We usually don't," he said. "We were trying to confuse them."
But Evans also saluted Smith, whose defense contributed to Mercer's 4-for-15 shooting.
"Jason's the best athlete on the campus," Evans said. "Ron Mercer is a tremendous athlete. But Jason Smith is an athlete in his own right."
Smith also benefited from a history against Mercer, Evans said. The players competed in an AAU championship game as seniors with Smith's team winning. "So he wasn't going to be in awe of him," Evans said.
From the start, Ole Miss did not look in awe of Kentucky. The Rebels shot UK out of its zone defense in the first five minutes. After making just three of 26 three-point shots against Alabama Wednesday, Ole Miss rang up three treys in the first four minutes. "Three lucky threes," Pitino said in his only comment that deviated from crediting Ole Miss for winning.
Ole Miss guard Keith Carter saw the first Rebel trey - a running one-hander off one foot by point guard Michael White to beat the shot clock - as an omen.
"That crazy shot," Carter said, "I just think that said things were going to go our way."
UK abandoned its zone and no-pressing strategy after a television timeout with 15:46 left in the first half.
"We only had eight (healthy dependable) players," Pitino said. "What we wanted to do is what we did in Louisville. Shorten the game to a 20-minute game and keep it close."
Ole Miss made seven three-pointers in the half. That was more than all but two UK opponents had made in games this season.
"We're a good shooting team," Evans said. "Maybe some people thought after the Alabama game we weren't. But that's one of the things that happens to you."
Though much improved, Ole Miss believed it needed to beat Kentucky to convince skeptics.
"People thought we could play with them, but not really win the game," forward Anthony Boone said.
People were wrong.