Date story was published: Sunday, March 9, 1986
For the 29th time in 32 games, a willing Kentucky team found a way.
It wasn't the well-trodden path paved with Kenny Walker baskets. The Wildcats' No. 3 all-time scorer (1,986 points) had just two field goals, which matched his season low.
Given that considerable handicap, UK still found a way to earn the highest honor possible in Southeastern Conference basketball: regular-season and tournament championships.
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Kentucky won the latter yesterday, beating Alabama at Rupp Arena by a deceptively large 11-point margin, 83-72.
The victory made Kentucky only the second team to win both the regular- season and tournament titles in the same year since the post-season event was revived in 1979. UK also did it in 1984.
Included in the foul-plagued 40 minutes of action yesterday was a blocked shot by Roger Harden, his first in four years. "Hey, I'm proud of that," the senior point guard said.
Cedric Jenkins came off the bench to score a career-high 13 points.
And, to begin an afternoon of the unusual, Eddie Sutton was slapped with his second technical foul of the season. He was hit with one at Kansas in December.
In the end, at least one constant remained: Kentucky was a winner.
"That's what makes this team special," Sutton said. "It's able to win when the All-American (Walker) is maybe not there.
"I didn't think there was any way possible (Kentucky could own a 29-3 record), but this is a special group. The chemistry's right. They understand their roles. They know what it takes to win and they go out and win."
Not that the Wildcats didn't need a reminder. UK got one yesterday in the game's first five minutes. It came in the form of a raving Sutton who had to be restrained as he argued with the referees. Twice in the early moments, Sutton jumped up to complain when a Wildcat was called for a foul after stripping the ball from an Alabama player on the drive.
When Walker ended up on the floor a few minutes later after going up for a shot and not getting a foul call, Sutton threw his sport coat to the bench. Referee John Clougherty called the technical.
Buck Johnson made both technical free throws, beginning an 8-0 run that pushed Alabama to an early 18-9 lead.
But Kentucky got a benefit, too.
"When I get a technical, most of the time it's to spur my team," Sutton said. "I was concerned about our team. We needed a rallying point.
"I didn't curse him (Clougherty). I just said something like 'Did you get up early enough this morning? Are you awake?' This time I didn't think we had gotten up early enough."
Kentucky, which survived an emotional 61-58 semifinal test against Louisiana State Friday night, didn't respond right away. The Wildcats spent the rest of the half trying to catch up. Trying too hard, Sutton said.
"The tempo was too fast and we fouled too much," Sutton said. "We got behind and we were trying to play catch-up."
That was the reason UK gave up a season-high 43 first-half points, Sutton said, not poor defense.
Kentucky trailed the entire half, never by more than nine.
"We were taking OK shots, but we could have gotten better shots with a little more patience," Harden said. "I think we kind of forgot we had a whole half to go."
UK got two big breaks in the final nine minutes of the half.
With Alabama seeking to expand a 25-19 edge, Ed Davender knocked the ball loose from Johnson. As Davender gathered the ball to run upcourt, Johnson dived at his feet. The prone Johnson was called for a foul, his third, and had to leave the game with 7:42 remaining.
While Alabama's all-league and all-tournament forward had to go to the sideline, UK was getting a spark from its bench. Jenkins entered the game with 3:39 remaining and went to work after Harden and Walker had combined for a three-point play to cut Alabama's lead to 37-32. Harden had hit his sixth straight jumper of the half and Walker added a free throw after being fouled under the basket.
Jenkins then scored six straight points. He hit a short baseline jumper. Then he made both ends of a one-and-one after being fouled while rebounding an Alabama miss.
He completed the string in high style. After twice losing control, Jenkins moved the ball between his legs and went up for a 5-footer that cut Alabama's lead to 40-38.
The Tide's 43-40 halftime lead evaporated in the first five minutes of the second half. In that span, UK reeled off seven straight points and, however tentatively, got the upper hand.
Included in the run was a fast-break dunk by Walker that gave Kentucky the lead for good at 44-43. It was Walker's first basket of the game and came with 17:01 to play.
While UK was scoring seven straight, Alabama was missing its first four shots and committing three turnovers.
Worse for Alabama, Johnson picked up his fourth foul with 15:25 to play while contesting Jenkins for a rebound. Jenkins made one of two free throws to complete the 7-0 run.
"When Buck got into foul trouble, we had to make some makeshift substitutions," Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson said, "and we didn't have the depth to stay in there."
Johnson eventually fouled out with 5:36 remaining. He finished with 12 points.
However, UK also had foul trouble. Winston Bennett picked up his fourth foul with 17:06 remaining and was limited to six points in 18 minutes.
Kentucky's lead grew to seven points (53-46) when Harden threw a lob pass across the lane as if he were a hockey player centering a puck. Jenkins snatched the ball and tucked it home.
Alabama cut UK's lead to 53-50 with 12:16 remaining and could have gotten closer had the Tide made its free throws. In a 68-second span, point guard Terry Coner missed the front end of a bonus and missed two more free throws. Coner hit only two of nine free throws for the game.
Kentucky's edge was again down to three (63-60) with less than four minutes to play when Harden, the tournament's Mr. Clutch, struck again.
With the shot clock inside two seconds, Harden double-clutched in midair and hit a 15-footer.
"It was an important shot, not only for the team but for me," Harden said. "I had missed my last three."
UK salted it away at the free-throw line, making 18 free throws in the final three minutes. In one stretch, the Wildcats made 12 straight.
Walker had 12 free throws in the final three minutes. His first two, with exactly three minutes left, enabled the senior forward to score in double figures for the 63rd straight game. He finished with 20 points.