Date story published: Saturday, March 13, 1999
NEW ORLEANS - As expected, Kentucky got the first-round victory last night. And the Cats also gained a painful perspective to encase the victory.
Immediately after the 82-60 victory over New Mexico State, UK Coach Tubby Smith told the players that recruit John Stewart had collapsed and died at his Indiana high school playoff game earlier in the evening.
"It just puts a lot of things in perspective," forward Scott Padgett said in somber tones. "How meaningless the game of basketball is when it comes to losing a friend or a family member."
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Discounted as it was, the victory propelled Kentucky into a classic second-round matchup in this NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional. The Cats (26-8) will play Kansas Sunday in a meeting of the first- and third-winningest programs in college basketball history.
But Stewart's death shrunk such a glamorous pairing to near insignificance .
"It puts playing a sport, a game, in perspective," Smith said. "Life is so fragile. I don't think we're sensitive enough as people, as reporters, to these young men and how vulnerable they are."
As for the basketball game, Kentucky used a big second half to advance to the second round.
The Cats ran off 21 straight points to break open the game belatedly. The burst of superiority was part of a 26-1 run that obliterated New Mexico State's upset hopes.
Kentucky's victory also pushed the Southeastern Conference toward an unprecedented achievement. It made the SEC the first league to sweep six first-round games of an NCAA Tournament.
Befitting their status as the most experienced players in the tournament, seniors Heshimu Evans, Wayne Turner and Padgett led UK. Evans topped the balanced scoring with 15 points. Turner added 14 and Padgett 11. "Our leadership again pulled us through," Smith said.
Kentucky substituted en masse several times in the first half. UK tried man-to-man and zone defenses. The Cats looked inside and to the perimeter for scoring.
But the Cats never found a combination of players or a plan of attack to break New Mexico State's will in the first half.
The score at halftime, 34-34, reflected an evenly played first 20 minutes. UK never led by more than four points. New Mexico State, which got 14 first-half points from forward Charles Gosa, never led by more than five. There were seven ties.
The first substitution signaled that Kentucky would not romp. Smith replaced all five starters with 14:45 left.
Although UK started sharp , hitting its first three shots, the Cats trailed 11-8 when Smith tried a new lineup.
Freshman Jules Camara made Smith look smart. He quickly scored two low-post baskets that showed his vast potential. On the first, he posted on the left side, turned to his right and banked in a shot.
On the second, Camara posted on the right side, turned to his right and banked in a 10-footer.
Smith returned the starters with 12:09 left in the half. With new-found energy, the starters staggered New Mexico State with a press.
The Aggies went almost four minutes without a basket.
But Gosa and three-point shooting prevented a breakout by UK. Gosa, the most effective inside player for either side in the half, made seven of 11 shots. He also grabbed four rebounds, which helped the undersized Aggies win the battle of the boards 16-12.
A Mike Bradley layup off the press gave Kentucky its largest first-half lead, 34-30, with 1:21 left.
But New Mexico State scored the last four points of the half.
Kentucky broke open the game five minutes into the second half. Five different Cats scored in a 21-0 run that extended a 44-43 UK lead to 65-43 .
Padgett began the breakout with the first of three UK three-pointers in the decisive run. Evans, who had nine points and the third trey in the run, capped it with a layup.
"He gave us a lot of energy," Turner said of Evans. "He rebounded well. He ran the floor well. He started finding his offense."
Kentucky's defense made a New Mexico State rally impossible. During the breakout, New Mexico State went scoreless for more than seven minutes as UK settled into a zone.
Gosa scored only four points in the second half, all after the Kentucky breakout.
"In the second half, we started playing me against him man-to-man," Padgett said. "We just went into a zone. When he caught it in the middle, we had three guys around him, and he had nowhere to go."
After freshman Eric Channing's three-pointer reduced the UK lead to 44-43 with 15:43 left, the Aggies did not score again until point guard Billy Keys made a free throw with 8:28 left. During the less-than-magnificent seven minutes, New Mexico State missed 11 shots. (Three were blocked.)
New Mexico State did not score another basket until Keys hit a 15-foot banker with 5:57 left.
No doubt, Kentucky charged into the locker room enthused and eager to defend its national championship. Then Smith delivered the stunning news about Stewart.
"I don't think it'll affect us," Padgett said of the new light cast on UK's championship ambitions. "If anything, it might push us even harder. You have to realize you only have so long on this planet. It makes you realize every time you go on the court, it could be your last time."