Date story published: Sunday, February 19, 1989
Thirteen times in an eight-minute span, the second-half lead changed hands. Kentucky and Alabama answered the other repeatedly, each time escalating this test of nerves and doing little to settle matters. A 47-46 Alabama lead at the 13:05 mark evolved into a 60-59 Kentucky deficit with 5:05 left.
Finally -- did someone say inevitably? -- UK cracked.
Alabama, which had much the better of it inside, pulled just far enough ahead in the final three minutes to secure a 71-67 victory.
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In a must-win situation, Alabama improved to 17-6 and 9-5 in the Southeastern Conference, the latter keeping the Tide in the league race.
Kentucky, so close yet so far again, lost its fifth straight game, a streak endured just three previous times in school history. The last being in 1924-25.
The Cats fell to 11-15 overall and 6-8 in the SEC, the latter leaving UK clinging to a share of sixth place.
Worse, perhaps, was the maddening pattern of defeat enacted once more. For the seventh time this season, and the third straight game, UK let a second- half lead slip away. This time, the Cats nursed a 44-38 lead before expiring.
"I can't explain," UK coach Eddie Sutton said. "Through my coaching career, we'd win the game 90 percent of the time. Certainly, when you start losing, you lose some confidence. You know that's part of that."
Alabama, which had its own soul-searching to do after losing at Mississippi State last Wednesday, took the lead for good with 2:53 left. Freshman forward Robert Horry, who started for the first time, hit a leaner in the lane that put the Tide ahead 64-62.
UK had matched or eclipsed Bama's previous eight leads. This time, Reggie Hanson made only the first of a one-and-one.
Michael Ansley, looking menacing with the shaved head, flashed into the lane for a 10-footer that made it 66-63. The senior forward pounded UK inside all day, finishing with 24 points and 14 rebounds.
After Chris Mills' post-up turnaround rolled off the rim, Bama beat the Cats downcourt. In the confusion, center David Benoit was left free for a dunk that made it 68-63 with 1:45 left.
"That was probably the biggest play of the game," Derrick Miller said. "That padded the lead and made me think, 'Uh oh.' "
An on-the-fly switch from zone to man-to-man caused Benoit to be so free, Sutton said. The Cats got no closer than 70-67, that coming in the final five seconds.
"I don't think I have ever been happier in the years I have coached at Alabama," Tide coach Wimp Sanderson said. "To say I am satisfied with this game is the greatest understatement in the world.
"I guess you could say in the game today we hung in there. And gave ourselves a chance to win in the end."
Two factors worked in Bama's favor. Despite losing starting forward Melvin Cheatum to injury Wednesday, Sanderson was able to revolve four big bodies under the basket. Those players enabled Alabama to outrebound UK 38-29. "A nine-rebound cush (cushion) was very, very important to us," Sanderson said.
UK expected Ansley, Benoit and Horry to be a load. The surprise was Marcus Webb, a freshman who had played only 58 minutes all season and scored but 14 points.
Webb, whose linebacker physique made him seem taller than the listed 6- foot-7, scored eight points in 14 minutes. Twice in the back-and-forth second-half stretch, Webb erased UK one-point leads with post-up baskets.
"He wasn't even in our scouting report," Sutton said. "During the warm-ups, I asked Coach (Jimmy) Dykes who that guy was. He said, 'I haven't ever seen him play.' I know he's not in any of our films."
While Alabama's inside game thrived, especially as the game wore on and UK's foul-plagued defense wore down, UK struggled to establish any offense near the basket.
Center LeRon Ellis made only two of 10 shots. Among the misses was a 5-foot air ball when UK sought to expand a 44-40 lead.
"I think my teammates could be a little frustrated with me," Ellis said. "You can't fault the effort. I tried just as hard as I did at LSU (Wednesday, when Ellis scored 24 points, the most he's scored in 15 games). The ball just didn't go in. It's not like I was standing around doing nothing."
Ellis' father, the former NBA player LeRoy Ellis, attended yesterday's game. It was the first time LeRoy had been at one of LeRon's college games. LeRon said that his father's presence did not affect his game.
Also aiding Bama's stretch drive was a defensive switch on Miller.
Guarded by Alvin Lee, a three-point shooter not known for defensive prowess, Miller scored 14 first-half points. His scoring enabled UK to steady itself after Alabama broke to a 9-2 lead, the Tide's largest margin of the game.
For much of the second half, Miller was guarded by Keith Askins, at 6-6 five inches taller than Lee and an inch taller than Miller.
Miller denied the switch affected his offense. "It didn't rattle me at all," said Miller, who noted that he took only four second-half shots. "Coach Sutton said to get the ball inside. I guess he wanted to get it in to LeRon and let him score."
Miller did not score in the second half until the 3:09 mark. His baseline pop tied it for the last time at 62-62. He finished with a team-high 18 points.
Askins blocked Miller's turnaround after Benoit's dunk. Miller got off only one other shot in the final three minutes.
"I got up in his jersey," Askins said. "They were trying to set up a lot of picks for him. I was getting a lot of help from Gary (Waites, the Tide point guard)."
Askins' block preserved a 68-63 lead.
After a timeout with 50 seconds left, UK's last hope died. Askins denied Miller the ball and Horry stole Mills' feed to a posting Hanson.
Sutton noted transition defense and rebounding as two areas that hurt UK. He also applauded another strong effort that proved again that the Cats still can have hope despite their desperate situation.
"If we had hit some shots," said Sutton, referring to UK's stretch run. "It goes back to if the ball goes in the hole, you win. If it doesn't, you don't. Go back and replay the game, and think of the easy shots. They hit theirs and we didn't hit ours. When you talk about a four-point game, it doesn't take very many of those."