Date story was published: Monday, February 1, 1988
LOUISVILLE -- Start to finish, it was a battle of nerves. Freshman LeRon Ellis overcame the jitters of starting his first collegiate game. He scored a career-high 14 points, grabbed six rebounds and made five steals to spark Kentucky's 78-69 victory over Notre Dame here yesterday.
"Coach (Eddie Sutton) asked me if I would be too nervous to start (for Richard Madison, who never left the bench) and, um, I started anyway," said Ellis, who received the Bernie Shively Award as the game's Most Valuable Player. "I was happy they had the confidence to start me. I was worried I would get out there and do something really bad. But I worked hard even though I know I did make a lot of mistakes."
Ellis wasn't alone. Which is why the jangled nerves at the finish belonged to Sutton. Uneasily, the UK coach watched his team become careless down the stretch and make exciting what could have been the routine. A familiar bugaboo -- questionable shot selection -- helped the Irish slice a 55-45 lead to two with more than seven minutes left.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Notre Dame got no closer only because David Rivers missed a breakaway dunk. "I felt the ball sliding down my hand and I had to just put it up," said Rivers, who was held to 7-for-17 shooting and 21 points by Ed Davender and Rex Chapman.
Notre Dame's second attempt to tie it at 58 was nearly as good. Center Gary Voce banged a low-post turnaround too hard off the glass.
With those misses, Notre Dame felt, went its chances for victory.
"We knew if we got the lead, it'd be over," reserve guard Joe Fredrick said. "They've folded before. They did against Auburn. We thought they'd fold again."
Instead, "We choked," Fredrick said. "That's all there was to it. Kentucky didn't beat us. We beat ourselves."
The final 45 seconds seemed to support Fredrick's contention. The Irish cut a 72-65 UK lead to three. A post-up basket by Voce over Chapman, who mistakenly switched men with center Rob Lock, fueled the rally. So did Winston Bennett's impromptu length-of-the-court pass over the Notre Dame press.
"I wasn't supposed to do that," Bennett said. "I was supposed to go to Rob on the baseline. But LeRon was so wide open and they had nobody playing center field."
Bennett's pass flew over Ellis, prompting Sutton to turn toward press row and mutter: "I'm going to take up sportswriting."
Down 72-69, Notre Dame had two shots at a further reduction. But Rivers missed a contested shot in the lane.
Then Ellis capped an afternoon of personal highlights by blocking Jamere Jackson's rebound shot inside.
The rest was up to Davender, who hit six clinching free throws in the final 11 seconds.
"If we're going to make mistakes, it's better in a game like this," Sutton said.
UK improved to 14-3 in the one-game reprieve from Southeastern Conference play. The Cats, 6-3 in the SEC, return to league play Wednesday at Rupp Arena against Mississippi.
Notre Dame fell to 12-5.
Ellis said he was not told he was starting until a few minutes before tip- off, but the 6-foot-11 Californian looked as if he'd been starting all season. "LeRon played well from the jump (which he won over Voce)," Davender said.
Ellis had only one basket early: a bull-in-the-China-shop layup that left Notre Dame's Sean Connor sprawled on the floor.
"We were trying to give those guys (Ellis and fellow freshman Eric Manuel) the shots," Voce said. "We'd never seen him (Ellis) totally explode against anyone else."
Early in the game, Ellis made back-to-back steals off feeds into the post which seemed to breathe new life into UK.
"This was by far the best Ellis has played," Sutton said. "Overall, his play was outstanding. One thing that'll probably go unnoticed by the fans were his five steals. His defense was excellent."
"I just went out and executed like the coaches told me," Ellis said. "Everything we do in practice I tried to do out there on the court today."
Other defensive aces were Davender and Chapman, who alternated on Rivers. Surprisingly, Chapman got the bulk of the time.
Rivers, who entered the game averaging 23.7 points, had only one offensive flurry. He scored nine straight points, keeping the Irish even at 15-15.
Rivers did not make a second-half basket until he rebounded his own blocked shot (by Chapman) and banked it in with 10:35 left. His only other second-half basket was a three-pointer late that cut UK's lead to 67-65.
"I never got into the groove," said Rivers, who had eight turnovers. "I don't think I played anywhere near my potential."
Rivers rejected the idea Chapman and Davender kept him from a groove.
"They both played very good defense, but nothing they did created any problems," he said.
"Rex played him really well," Davender said. "He held him to 21. Some people can't hold him to 30. Rex probably showed another side of his game."
Chapman kept another part of his game -- shooting and creating offensively -- under wraps.
UK's leading scorer (18.4 ppg) did not take a shot until 6:07 remained in the first half. His first basket didn't come until 5:18, when he hit a three- pointer.
The second half was more of the same. No shots in the first six minutes. No points until the final 3:26.
"There wasn't really any need to do something like that (take a shot)," Chapman said. "I went into the game like any other. I knew they'd key on me. So I'd get my shot when it was there. Besides, the rest of the team was picking up the slack."
Manuel scored six of his eight points in the half. UK led 38-30 at intermission after a 61.5-percent shooting half. It was the Cats' third-best shooting half of the season.
But when crunch time came, Chapman returned to center stage. Seven of his 14 points came in the final 3:26.
"It was kind of close," Chapman said, "and we had gotten kind of stagnant."
Sutton thought 'antsy' was a better word. The Cats rushed at least four shots after assuming a 55-45 lead. An exception was an Ellis dunk off a Davender lob.
Notre Dame closed to within 58-56.
But Rivers missed the dunk and Voce the post-up 5-footer.
"It's a different game if we get those two shots," Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps said. "I felt if we got a lead, it'd put pressure on them. And with five or six minutes left, that's when Rivers will do the things he can do at the end of a game."
Instead, Chapman did the things he can do. A leaner in the lane. A stop- and-pop 18-footer off an inbounds pass. Another leaner in the lane while being fouled.
Those shots pushed UK to a 72-65 lead. The margin was just enough.