Date story was published: Monday, February 20, 1984
NASHVILLE -- It took 23 games and about the same number of assorted injuries and rehabilitations for Kentucky's most potent lineup to come together.
Yesterday the Wildcats proved worthy of the wait. They pulled out a 58-54 victory over Vanderbilt in a game that had the kind of honky-tonk heartbreak this town is famous for written all over it.
Seemingly cruising toward a comfortable victory, the Wildcats suddenly appeared to be sailing to oblivion in the closing minutes. Once ahead by nine (50-41) with less than six minutes remaining, UK was staring at a 54-54 test of nerves in the final 30 seconds.
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Even with a sellout Memorial Gym crowd
of 15,626 roaring its support, it was the Commodores who came up short.
"I knew it would be tight, but we've got the seniors," said senior Dicky Beal, the final missing link to work his way into the UK lineup. "We knew what it's like. We knew what we had to do: Get the ball to (Melvin) Turpin and (Sam) Bowie; handle the press and take care of the ball."
And making his first start of the season after a winter-long recovery from arthroscopic knee surgeries, tendinitis and a sprained ankle, Beal did just that. The 5-foot-11 speedball got off on a fast break, one of the few UK managed, and hit Turpin 10 feet from the basket. As he did all afternoon, Turpin hit an improbable shot, sinking a jumper while falling over Vandy's Brett Burrow.
The clutch basket put UK up 56-54 with 30 seconds remaining. When Burrow missed the front end of a one-and-one at the other end (Turpin was called for a charge), UK once again had a lead to protect.
Perhaps fittingly, Beal did the honors by sinking two free throws with 23 seconds left to set the final score.
"Anybody wants to start; it felt good to be out there," said Beal, who logged 39 minutes of playing time.
But they weren't the kind of minutes fans associate Beal with. The Cats had only five fast-break baskets as Vandy worked the 45-second shot clock to what Commodore Coach C.M. Newton termed perfection.
"We did everything we set out to do," Newton said. "There's a simple explanation for the loss: We did not shoot free throws. If we hit our free throws, we are going to be very, very happy. Instead, it's a very, very disappointing loss. That's the difference in the ball game."
Vandy, which came into the game hitting 72.6 percent of its free throws, made just eight of 17 against UK. Jeff Turner, who is the Southeastern Conference's best free-throw shooter (86.3 percent) made just half of his six chances. "They all felt good, every one of them," the 6-9 senior forward said. "I thought they were all going in. We make our free throws, it's a different ball game. It's that simple."
Not quite, said several UK players.
"Everyone is entitled to an opinion," Bowie said. "We like to think our turnovers and (Jim) Master's misses were the difference. Take your pick."
Master missed the front end of two oneand-ones in the final minute. The first, which came with 53 seconds remaining, could have widened a 54-52 lead. The second miss, which came with eight seconds to go, was relatively meaningless.
UK committed only eight turnovers with only two coming against Vanderbilt's full-court press. Although the turnovers against the press were few, they came at a critical time. The Cats were guilty of a 10-second violation and Bowie threw a lead pass 10 feet over Winston Bennett's head when Vandy was mounting its comeback.
Turner, who led the Commodores with 17 points, hit three straight jumpers down the stretch, each pulling Vandy within two.
"There was no stopping Turner," UK Coach Joe Hall said. "We didn't play badly, it's just that Vanderbilt played well. They adjusted to everything we did."
The Commodores tied it at 54-54 with 37 seconds remaining when Bowie was called for goaltending on Bobby Westbrooks' two-footer.
"I'll have to go back and watch the tape on that one," Bowie said of the call. "From where I was, I didn't think I goaltended."
It was after the goaltend, however, that UK broke through Vandy's press, got the goahead basket from Turpin and escaped with its 20th victory in 23 games. With the victory, UK moved a half-game ahead of Auburn in the SEC regular- season race. UK is now 11-3 in the league. Auburn, which is 10-3, plays host to Tennessee tonight.
Vandy fell to 11-12 overall and 6-8 in the SEC. The Commodores are now tied with Georgia and Tennessee for sixth place, the final position that receives a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament that will be played here in three weeks.
That precarious position made yesterday's cliffhanger that much tougher to swallow for Vandy fans.
"It doesn't feel good at all," Newton said when reminded that the Commodores were blown out 67-46 in Lexington last month. "I feel awful. I don't know how many people in town (Nashville) thought we could win. I know nobody in Kentucky thought we could win. They think UK shouldn't lose to anybody. But we had a chance to win this game. The explanation still holds. The free throws we missed beat us."
Until Vandy's comeback -- "We had it down to where we had a chance to win," Turner said -- UK appeared always to be in control. The Cats broke out to a 21-11 lead in the first 13 minutes. Vandy got no closer than four until the final five minutes, but UK could get no further ahead than 10.
"They took our transition game away," Beal said. "They got back well and they really played good defense."
UK stationed Bowie at the high post and Turpin at the low post in the first half. At Bowie's request, Bowie and Turpin switched positions for much of the second half. "It was a good suggestion for the team," Hall said.
Turpin thrived at both spots, pouring in a game-high 22 points for UK.
"Sam said I could hit those shots at the top of the key," Turpin said.
And hit them the 6-11 senior did.
During one eight-minute stretch of the second half, Turpin scored 12 points. The final two points coming on a dunk off a fast-break pass from Beal. That shot put UK ahead 50-41 with 5:48 remaining.
"I felt like I did at LSU," said Turpin, who had a season-high 35 points at Louisiana State last month. "I knew after the first shot that this might be my night. On that first one, I was offbalance and it went in. So I knew something was going to happen."
Only Kenny Walker, who was limited to 29 minutes because of foul trouble, and Beal joined Turpin in double figures. Both added 10 points.
Beal, starting for Roger Harden at point guard, was left open for shots, just as his sophomore predecessor had been by enemy defenses. Newton called Vandy's defensive scheme a "flat 3-2. We were playing some man-to-man and not guarding others at all."
Beal hit three of five outside jumpers (and was four of six from the field).
Despite those numbers and the praise his teammates offered -- "It's a different team with Dicky in there," Turpin said. "He sparks my game a lot."
Beal preferred to toss the bouquets rather than receive them.
"I'm not 'The Man,' " Beal protested. " 'The Men' are Turp and Bowie. It's that kind of game. You can't call a little man 'The Man.' The big men do the scoring and rebounding. They are 'The Men.'"
And together with Beal, Kentucky appears to be "The Team" many Wildcat fans have been awaiting.