Date story was published: Monday, February 3, 1986
RALEIGH, N.C. - An early nine-point lead had long since vanished.
Now, eighth-ranked Kentucky was breaking a timeout huddle trailing North Carolina State by 10 with only 8:55 remaining.
So many signs pointed toward the eventual 54-51 defeat that would come.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
A mirthfully hostile Reynolds Coliseum crowd was ablaze.
North Carolina State's 11-1 run had just sent the Cats into a full retreat to the bench.
State's huge front line, the components measuring three, three and four inches taller than UK's, had finally asserted itself and wasn't going anywhere.
Kentucky's shots had been going everywhere but in the basket.
So why did a cocky grin grace Roger Harden's face as he broke the UK huddle?
"Because I believed the whole time we'd win," UK's point guard said. "I'm surprised we lost."
With so many factors against them, including playing their third game in five days, the Wildcats did lose. But to UK's credit, it fought back and made North Carolina State hit free throws to clinch the victory. State, which improved to 14-6, got eight of a possible 10 free-throw points in the final 4:11.
In sifting through the ashes of UK's first loss in nine games and just the third overall in 21 outings, the blame could be easily fixed.
The Wildcats shot just 32.8 percent from the field, the school's lowest percentage since the 24.5 debacle against Georgetown in the 1984 Final Four.
"If we'd shot the ball better, we would have rocked them," said Harden, who made just one of six. "It all came down to the fact we didn't stroke the jumper like we had all year."
No Wildcat used fatigue as an excuse.
Winston Bennett, who was 5-for-18, wouldn't make an excuse of his bruised right (shooting) hand. "That's no excuse," said Bennett, who bruised the hand against Auburn Friday night. "I just wasn't hitting."
Because he and the other Wildcats weren't, N.C. State's hardly novel strategy of sagging on Kenny Walker was just that more effective.
The Wolfpack collapsed conventional zones on Walker. They used box-and-one defenses.
"We gave him more junk than you get in the mail," N.C. State coach Jim Valvano said. "I mean, we played every kind of defense known to man trying to keep the ball out of his hand."
The teeth in all those defenses was State's massive front line and equally imposing backcourt. The Wolfpack had eight blocked shots, with 7-foot substitute Panagiotis Fasoulas having four.
When Walker's first shot of each half was rejected, the offensive burden began shifting to the perimeter.
"The box-and-one and all always left someone open on the perimeter," said Walker, who finished with a season-low 10 points. "We just didn't knock those shots down."
UK stayed close, and even dominated much of the first half, with its defense and board play.
The Wildcats forced State into four turnovers in the first six minutes. As UK continually pressured the ball, State's massive front-liners wasted away, waiting for a ball that seldom came.
When a shot went up, the quicker UK players outhustled State to the ball.
"They just stopped us from doing what we wanted to do offensively," Valvano said.
Even though UK missed nine of its first 12 shots, the Wildcats were able to jump to a 13-4 lead. Seven of those points came off offensive rebounding opportunities as UK was en route to a 21-8 first-half edge on the boards.
However, as Kentucky continued to misfire, State slowly began cutting into the lead.
Chris Washburn, State's 6-11 center, hit a shot inside to cut the lead to 16-13 with 6:20 remaining. It was one of only two post-up baskets for State in the half.
Kentucky trailed briefly, 19-18, when 6-10 freshman Charles Shackleford laid in a loose ball with 3:46 remaining.
UK held a 28-23 halftime lead, with the last two points coming on a bit of trickery.
With three seconds left, UK was inbounding the ball under its own basket. Walker pointed twice toward the hoop, indicating he wanted Harden to lob the pass high into the lane.
When State's defenders leaned inside, Bennett sneaked to the right of the hoop and took Harden's pass for a layup with one second left.
The moment was sweet, but the lead was about five points less than UK coach Eddie Sutton wanted.
"In the first half, that's where we lost it," Sutton said. "We should have been up double figures if we had shot the ball.
"If the lead had been that big, we would have come out in a zone. We started to come out (in the second half) in a zone, but our man-to-man was so good."
N.C. State was more determined to pound the ball inside in the second half and UK less able to prevent it.
"In the first half, they forced us further and further out," State guard Nate McMillan said. "They got a little tired in the second half. Then, we were able to go inside."
From the 28-23 halftime lead until UK trailed by 10 (44-34) and called time with 8:55, the Wolfpack went inside on a set offense on 10 of 13 possessions. Another possession resulted in a layup when State beat UK's full-court trap. State took outside shots on the other two trips downcourt.
"The one thing that really showed up, and I was afraid it would, was fatigue," Sutton said. "We got tired there in the second half and that hurt us, especially defensively."
State outscored UK 10-2 to begin the second half. Eight of those points came off the low post. Shackleford and Washburn got four each with turnaround shots in the lane, giving State a 33-30 lead with 15:39 remaining. UK never led again.
Walker's three-point play with 13:56 remaining - his last basket of the day - tied it at 33-33.
Then, State went on an 11-1 burst.
Shackleford's layup past UK's press got the run going.
Fasoulas' free throw, which resulted from one of a string of calls that annoyed Sutton, made it 36-33. Fasoulas, as awkward as he is tall, had half- stumbled into the lane and put up a brick.
When the whistle blew, UK players looked at each other in disbelief.
"They had called the foul on Kenny," Cedric Jenkins said. "But somebody said something and he (the referee) just pointed at me."
Two more free throws, by Washburn after being fouled by Walker on the post, made it 38-33.
Then, after Walker hit a free throw, Fasoulas flipped in a 10-footer, Washburn banked home a lob and Ernie Myers hit a baseline jumper to put State up 44-34.
Free throws kept UK at bay.
When the Wildcats got to within four with 4:27 remaining, State made six straight free throws.
The deficit was five (52-47) with 36 seconds to go when UK spent its last strategic bullet by fouling State's worst free-throw shooter. Shackleford, a 45-percent shooter from the line entering the game, made both shots to complete a 6-for-6 performance.
"I'm really pleased," said Sutton of a UK effort that boasted everything but victory. "I don't know how much we can learn from the ball game except to go out and get in some shooting practice."