Date story was published: January 3, 1984
OXFORD, Miss. -- No one mentioned "January Slump," so refer to it as ''January Slop."
Playing without Jim Master, who was benched as a result of some January discipline, Kentucky lived down to its recent standards for the first month of a new year yesterday . . . whatever the label.
The Wildcats prevailed here -- seemingly always a tough place for them to play -- and beat Mississippi 68-55. But, the issue wasn't decided until the teams had thrashed their way through 40 turnovers and 49 personal fouls.
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Turnovers and fouls weren't the only problems for UK, which committed 20 and 21 of the above, respectively. The Cats also had poor foul shooting in the clutch, making only one of a potential eight free throws during one two-minute stretch late in the second half.
Despite all that, UK improved to 90 this season in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.
If the misleading 13-point victory -- misleading because the scrappy Rebels trailed by 59-53 and had the ball with less than 90 seconds remaining -represented a "slump," "slop" or some other kind of slide associated with the month, UK Coach Joe Hall wasn't saying.
"I'm not going to address a slump or the possibility of a slump," Hall said when asked about the Cats' less-than-impressive triumph over the 5-5 Rebels.
Nor would he comment on whether his fears of a week ago -- a drop in intensity when Kentucky began its annual pilgrimage toward the SEC championship -- had been realized.
"I'm pleased with the win," said Hall, ducking the intensity issue. "It was a very typical Mississippi game for us this time of year . . . a struggle."
And, though Mississippi wilted and was outscored 9-0 in the final 1:12, Rebel Coach Lee Hunt found the loss pleasing.
"I thought we probably played Kentucky a little better than people thought we would," Hunt said. "I'm very proud of our players."
One player who didn't make his coach swell with pride was Master. A source close to UK indicated the 6-foot5 senior guard had violated a team curfew late last week.
(Troy McKinley, the only other Cat not to play yesterday, apparently also stayed out too late, the source said.)
"It's a personal problem that came up a few days ago," said Master, who dressed and participated in pre-game warmups but didn't play.
Asked if the benching could continue in the Cats' next game, the always emotional fight-for-their-lives affair at Louisiana State, Master said: "I'm not sure."
If Hall knew, the UK coach wasn't saying.
"No comment," Hall responded when the subject of Master's benching came up.
Although hardly newsworthy, McKinley's non-participation also seemed to touch a nerve.
"I'm not going to comment on any player who didn't play," Hall said.
Freshman James Blackmon started in Master's spot and led UK with 15 points. But, without Master, who was UK's second-leading scorer (10.8 points per game) and most reliable outside threat, the Cats were made more susceptible to the Rebels' sagging man-to-man defense.
Melvin Turpin, the primary target of sags by UK opponents, said he never faced a better or more suffocating defense.
"I wasn't expecting that much defense from Ole Miss; we were lucky to have enough points to win," said Turpin, who contributed only six points and three rebounds. "That was the hardest defense I've faced since I've been at Kentucky."
Turpin's frustration reached a zenith less than eight minutes into the game. Free of the pack following a turnover, Turpin dribbled half the court and rose for a slam. At the last minute, however, the ball slipped from his grasp. Instead of a resounding dunk, the ball banged high off the backboard and rebounded to an Ole Miss player.
"I thought I had it," said Turpin, who is growing a beard (shaving irritates a complexion problem; hence a bend in the team rules). "That was the worst I've ever played."
With Master de-activated and Turpin defused, UK's cohesion was further disrupted by foul trouble. Kenny Walker and Winston Bennett picked up three fouls each in the first half.
"In the first half the refs were calling it a little close," Bennett said, ''and we couldn't get into the flow."
Walker picked up his second and third fouls in a 14-second span and exited with 13:42 remaining in the first half. He was replaced by Bennett, who followed his teammate to the bench when he had three fouls by the 10:10 mark.
It was during their absence that Ole Miss went on a 14-2 run and opened up its largest lead of the game, 26-19.
Eric Laird, the Rebels' leading scorer with an average of 15.7 points per game, scored 10 of the 14 points. The 6-4 junior guard broke away for two fast-break dunks during the spurt. His other points came as he posted up UK's Roger Harden inside or flashed by the 6-foot sophomore for short jumpers.
"He was scoring on us because we weren't getting weakside help," Hall said of Laird. "Our guys wouldn't respond to his posting up and help out. It was an identical situation to what they were doing to Turpin."
The only difference was Turpin was surrounded when he received the ball down low.
Laird, who had scored 52 points in the Rebels' last two games, finished with a career-high 34. He made 12 of 21 shots from the floor and 10 of 12 free throws, but he was the only Rebel in double figures.
"Eric Laird is a great competitor," Hunt said. "He really played his heart out today."
UK stemmed the tide after a timeout at the 3:25 mark. Hall rushed Sam Bowie, Harden and Blackmon back into the game. UK scored the last seven points of the half to tie the game 26-26 at intermission.
That run salvaged a half that saw an Ole Miss team that had been outrebounded 289-246 in its first nine games hold an 18-13 edge on the boards.
"We were lucky to be tied at the half," Master said. "That was the biggest key for us."
UK took command early in the second half, outscoring the Rebels 13-2 in the first five minutes. Besides switching Blackmon onto Laird, the Cats seemed to do nothing different defensively. They stayed with the man-to-man.
"The key to the game was our aggressive start to the second half," Hall said.
Ole Miss scored only eight points in the first nine minutes of the second half. UK built its lead to as much as 12 points (52-40) before switching to its 13-1 zone for the game's final eight minutes.
"Defensively, we couldn't hold them all day," Hunt said. "We had to get some help on our offensive end as well. It was very important for us to get a good start in the second half. We got some good shots, but they just didn't fall."
Bennett, who had 13 points, scored seven straight to give UK its largest lead, 59-46, with 5:24 left.
It was then that poor foul shooting gave UK one final scare.
After Ole Miss cut the lead to 59-51, the Cats missed the front end of three one-and-ones. Dicky Beal missed two and Blackmon one as the lead narrowed to six points with 1:57 to go.
Laird, who scored 20 of the Rebels' 29 second-half points, got a basket on a goaltend against Bowie to cut the UK lead to six. Ole Miss got the ball back when UK turned it over against the press.
But, the opportunity died when Laird turned down a 15-footer and passed the ball inside to Sylvester Kincheon. The 6-11 freshman center fumbled the pass out of bounds.
The Cats made seven of eight free throws in the final 1:12 to win going away.
Just as their free-throw shooting was up and down, so did the Cats take comfort in yesterday's victory.
"You've got to look at it realistically," Walker said. "We played without Master. We had early foul trouble. It was one of those games where you learn from your mistakes."