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Date story was published: December 24, 1983

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- James Blackmon, in need of some joy with Christmas, had a prayer answered here yesterday, allowing Kentucky to escape with a 56-54 victory over Illinois.

With two defenders leaping in his face, Blackmon threw up a last-second shot and it banked in to keep this Wildcat team unbeaten (7-0).

Illinois, which had been undefeated, fell to 8-1.

For Blackmon, who slipped out of Assembly Hall like a thief in the night, the shot apparently gave the freshman renewed confidence for 1984. Blackmon and several of his teammates left here almost immediately after the game to spend Christmas in their hometowns.

"Emotionally, he needed it," Sam Bowie said of Blackmon's game winner. ''James has a lot of high expectations. It bothers him when he's not playing as well as he thinks he should. It can get to him."

Since his spectacular beginning, capped by one-on-one forays that sealed UK's victory over Indiana earlier this month, Blackmon had played more like the freshman he is. Yesterday, however, with his team on the brink of overtime (and possible defeat), UK Coach Joe Hall again turned to Blackmon.

Using the same one-on-one offense that beat Indiana -- the "one on four" -- Blackmon took Illinois' Bruce Douglas to the hoop as his teammates watched from the baseline. Blackmon pulled up for a 15-footer from the right side as the clocked ticked down to one. The shot appeared wide to the right, but it hit the glass and ricocheted into the basket.

"He said he went up for a straight shot," said another UK freshman, Paul Andrews. "He said he had to move the shot around when the defense came out at him. He just went ahead and shot."

No one said Blackmon closed his eyes. No one doubted he closed the door on Illinois' upset bid.

"All I know is the durn thing went in," assistant Coach Lake Kelly said. ''He made my Christmas."

Until Blackmon's shot, UK appeared headed for overtime after having to fight to stay even in the first 39 minutes and 52 seconds. The Cats had called a timeout with eight seconds left. It was then that Blackmon was inserted into the game and instructed to win it.

"He came through," Hall said with a smile. "That makes me a smart coach."

Illinois set up the need for Blackmon's heroics by scoring two baskets in the final minute to erase a 54-50 deficit. Doug Altenberger, a thorn in UK's side all afternoon, hit a jumper with 1:04 remaining. When Winston Bennett was called for a foul while blocking out on the shot, the Illini got the ball back. With UK shading its defense toward Altenberger outside and Efrem Winters inside, point guard Quinn Richardson was left open. Richardson hit a shot from the foul line to tie it with 19 seconds to go.

UK called time with eight seconds remaining after bringing the ball past half-court. The game belonged to Blackmon.

Afterward, the 7,651 brave souls who watched the game gave both teams a standing ovation in appreciation for the exciting scoring runs each threw at the other all afternoon.

"We proved we're no pushover," said Altenberger, who led Illinois with 19 points.

The Illini came into the game with the intent of proving just that. After a slow start, Illinois outscored UK 14-4 in the final eight minutes of the half to take a 33-26 lead into the locker room. Altenberger scored eight of his points during the run.

Illinois shot 57.7 percent in the half (15 of 26) as the Illini solved UK's manto-man and 1-3-1 defenses. Altenberger had success against both. Kenny Walker, Bennett and Jim Master all tried guarding the 6-4 sophomore in the first half. Altenberger shot UK out of its 1-3-1 with jumpers from the corners.

Winters, who posted up strong all afternoon, added 15 points for Illinois. Winters' rebound basket put the Illini up seven late in the first half, the home team's largest lead. It was matched when Douglas, who added 12 points, hit a baseline shot with five seconds left to set the halftime score of 33-26.

"I think we spent more time thinking about getting home than we did about the ball game," Hall said of his team's first half. "It showed."

Distractions were plentiful. Besides Christmas and the players having the option of returning to Lexington with the official party or going their separate ways, there were three major concerns other than basketball:

* The weather. Yesterday's high temperature here was a minus 5 degrees. Blowing snow and cold temperatures combined to make the wind chill reading a minus 65 to 70.

* The officiating. The regular Big Ten crew assigned to the game could not reach Assembly Hall because of the weather. Three spectators with refereeing experience were called out of the stands and given whistles. The three were Bob Hiltibran, who has a doctorate in chemistry, Charlie Due, a baseball coach and a high school football referee (he coaches baseball at Champaign's Central High), and Bill Mitze, a principal at Monticello (Ill.) High and a high school refereee for 18 seasons until he retired two years ago. Neither coach had a gripe about the officiating. "Under the circumstances, I thought they did a super job," Hall said. Illinois Coach Lou Henson said they were the match of any Big Ten referee.

* Getting home. The UK official party was supposed to return to Lexington at 6 p.m. EST last night. Those plans were scrapped when the team's General Aviation charter plane would not start yesterday morning. Heaters were to be flown in, but the plans were slowed by Chicago's O'Hare Airport being closed because of the weather and icy roads. When the team learned repairs could not be made on the plane it decided to return to Lexington by bus with scheduled arrival at 2 a.m.

UK took charge of the game early in the second half, outscoring Illinois 14-6. The run, capped by a Bowie dunk off a lob from Blackmon, gave the Cats a 40-39 lead with 13:28 remaining.

"The early moments of the second half really hurt us," Henson said. "We didn't run the offense. We didn't move the ball and get it to the right people."

After a timeout at the 11:59 mark, Illinois went on a 9-2 spurt of its own to go up 48-42.

Down by six, Hall was intent on going without Turpin, who was benched with 11:59 remaining.

"He didn't have his usual game," Hall said of the 6-11 center who scored only seven points and grabbed two rebounds against the collapsing Illini defense.

UK alternated a 2-3 zone with a man-to-man in the final seven minutes. The Illini went scoreless for almost six minutes during that stretch as the Wildcats took control. A three-point play by Bowie, who scored 11 points, pushed Kentucky ahead 49-48 with 5:48 to go.

The lead grew to five points (53-48) when Walker hit a jumper at the 3:17 mark.

Illinois creeped to within three when Douglas scored on a 15-footer. When Dicky Beal made only the front end of a one-and-one with 1:24 remaining, the lead was four.

Two Illini baskets later, Blackmon regained his confidence.