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UK FADES IN STRETCH AGAIN

Date story published: Sunday, March 5, 1989

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Todd Merritt hit an improvised three-pointer from the right corner with two seconds left last night to cap a furious Mississippi State comeback that beat snake-bit Kentucky 68-67.

Missed free throws and poor rebounding killed the Cats, who led 63-55 with less than three minutes left. UK missed four of eight free-throw attempts, including the front end of two one-and-ones by Sean Sutton, in the final 2:38.

As a result, Kentucky lost for the 11th time this season after holding a second-half lead. The Cats fell to 13-18 overall and 8-10 in the Southeastern Conference. Only once before (1966-67) had a UK team lost as many as 10 SEC games.

The regular season mercifully over, UK will play Friday in the SEC Tournament. The Cats will play Vanderbilt.

Last night's defeat was particularly cruel. Moments after Merritt's prayer was answered, UK reaped one last shot from nerveless execution in the clutch.

After two seconds were restored to the clock, Chris Mills threw a three- quarter-court pass to LeRon Ellis who directed a touch-pass to Richie Farmer on the left wing.

Farmer, whose three-pointer at the buzzer beat Mississippi Wednesday, put up a 15-footer. It only went about 14 feet.

"We executed the play exactly the way it was called," Farmer said. "I rushed it a little bit."

No, he said, the thought of Wednesday's game-winner did not go through his mind.

"I was just concentrating on the shot," he said. "I just missed it."

That left Kentucky with the better last-second execution but still a loser.

"If you want to see something that works, take that last shot by Kentucky," State coach Richard Williams said. "They ran it to perfection. And the kid missed the shot."

As for Merritt's game-winner, Williams said State wanted to get the ball inside to Cameron "Smoke" Burns. Burns had scorched UK for a game-high 20 points.

"We wanted to get it into overtime," Williams said.

UK foiled the strategy by collapsing its 2-3 zone around Burns. The Cats had done just that most of the game.

"I was going to pass it inside, but he (the UK defender) didn't come out as fast as I thought he would," Merritt said.

So Merritt, who had made only eight of 26 three-pointers this season, dribbled twice to get outside the three-point line and fired.

"It was certainly an unplanned thing," Williams said. "We fooled around and Todd made the biggest shot of his life."

Then came one of the bigger surprises of Merritt's life: Farmer's uncontested jumper at the buzzer.

"I thought the ball was going to bounce around and that would be that," Merritt said of UK's final desperate play. "I looked up and he's shooting a good shot."

Though Merritt's three-pointer won it, UK coach Eddie Sutton pointed to the missed free throws and poor rebounding as the critical factors.

State, 13-14 overall and 7-11 in the SEC, began its rally with two rebound baskets.

With UK's 63-55 lead sliced to 64-59, Sean Sutton missed the front end of a one-and-one.

Then came another surprise. Slumping Tony Watts, who went scoreless in State's last game, hit a three-pointer with 1:11 left. It was the only basket for Watts, who was benched early in the second half after putting up a three- point air ball.

Two Farmer free throws extended the lead to 66-62, but Doug Hartsfield drove to a three-point play that cut the lead to 66-65.

Ellis made one of two free-throw tries with 27 seconds left to set up the final dramatics.

"Let's be honest," Williams said. "Kentucky missed free throws. Otherwise, we don't have a chance."

Mills scored 14 of his team-high 16 points in the second half to give UK control of the sloppily played game.

Mills scored UK's first eight points of the second half and 12 of the first 14. His shooting enabled Kentucky to take a 54-42 lead with 10:58 left.

Besides Mills' scoring, poor shooting also put State in its hole. The Bulldogs came into the game hitting 49.9 percent from the field, the second- best average in the SEC. But UK's 2-3 zone, which the Cats played for most of the game, kept State on the perimeter.

State did not make a perimeter shot in the first half, including 0-for-7 three-point shooting.

State made just 12 of 29 first-half shots.

"They kept sagging off," Merritt said. "Coach Williams told us to keep shooting the shot."

UK led 33-31 at halftime, but the Cats could not feel comfortable.

With inside defense and rebounding considered the game's two keys, Kentucky went into the locker room knowing its only two big men each had three fouls.

Ellis, the team's leading scorer, picked up two early fouls. He went to the bench at the 17:02 mark when he fouled going over the back on a rebound of his own missed layup.

Ellis returned five minutes later and appeared to be able to get through the half without another foul.

But with 2:53 left, he foolishly fouled State guard Chris Hall, who had rebounded Sean Sutton's three-point miss.

Ellis' backup, Mike Scott, picked up his third foul with 5:09 left when he was called for setting an illegal pick. The call drew criticism from the UK coaches, as did many throughout the half.

With Reggie Hanson, UK's best inside defender, on crutches, the foul trouble seemed especially troubling.

"Never mind the fouls, the big guys didn't rebound," said Eddie Sutton, who noted Scott had one rebound and Ellis none.

Burns kept his team close with 14 first-half points.

Because State could not hit from outside, UK stayed ahead. During one stretch, State missed six straight jumpers and 10 of 12 shots. The exceptions were two post-up baskets by Burns.

Mills, who made only one of four first-half shots, scored eight points inside the lane as the second half began. A dunk off a lob from Ellis pushed the lead to 39-31. Mills' rebound basket gave UK a 41-31 lead, prompting State's timeout.

UK's lead grew to 43-32 when Sean Sutton made a fast-break layup. A post- up basket by Mills gave UK its largest lead: 54-42 with 10:58 left.

Even injury to State's center, Chancellor Nichols, wasn't enough to save UK. Nichols hurt his right leg when he hit the floor hard after goaltending a Mills' post-up shot.

"It seems like the same old story," Derrick Miller said. "That's the best way I can put it: the same old story."

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