Date story published: Thursday, December 8, 1988
At halftime last night, the scoreboard read Kentucky 41, Northwestern State 36. But Eddie Sutton saw trouble.
The expected rout, which UK might have built on a one-time 11-point lead, was off.
Northwestern State -- a group of "little ole country boys," Coach Dan Bell said -- did the rest, gaining enough confidence by the minute to post a shocking 85-82 victory in UK's home opener.
Only 13 times before had UK lost a home opener. The feeling on both sides last night indicated a 14th shouldn't have happened.
"One of those Horatio Alger stories," Bell said after what was his sixth game as a collegiate head coach. "I'll end up sounding like Dale Brown and you all will run my butt out of here.
"I'm not stupid. We don't want to play Kentucky eight more times. We'll get our fannies drilled eight more times."
UK, 2-4, seemed on the way to drilling the Demons when it led 35-24 with less than five minutes left in the first half.
LeRon Ellis did the bulk of the damage. Dominating against State's diminutive front line, Ellis finished with 37 points, just three shy of Kevin Grevey's school record for a sophomore (40 vs. Georgia on Feb. 19, 1973).
Two free throws by Ellis, who had 18 first-half points, gave UK its 35-24 lead.
"We lost the game in the first half," Sutton said. "Instead of going out and delivering the killer blow and expanding it out to 16, 17 or 18 points, we got very careless. We committed way too many fouls and got ourselves in foul trouble."
Chris Mills, suddenly not a sensational freshman, Derrick Miller and Ellis all had three fouls by halftime.
Meanwhile, State scored the final five points of the half to close within 41-36.
"Definitely a momentum builder," Bell said. "When we stuck that first shot of the second half, that gave us a lot of confidence to go the rest of the way. They kept letting us hang in there. Before you knew it, our little ole country boys thought, 'Hey, we can win this thing.' "
With the help of three courageous (by State's view) or incorrect (UK's view) calls, State did just that.
For the record, Terrence Rayford, the only Northwestern State starter taller than 6-foot-4, scored four points in the final 41 seconds to clinch the victory.
Rayford, who watched helplessly as Ellis dominated at the other end, posted up the UK center for the go-ahead basket with 41 seconds left. That shot gave Northwestern State an 82-80 lead.
UK didn't get the chance to tie because John Pelphrey was called for charging into Patrick Wesley near midcourt with 27 seconds left.
"No question, that's something unheard of; something you don't get on the road," Bell said of the call.
Was it a charge? "You're not going to ask me that; it was the best call I've ever seen," Bell said, before adding, "When the whistle blew, I was already talking to the coaching staff about how they (UK) were going to shoot the one-and-one and what we'd have to do next."
Instead, the Cats had to foul. Rayford, a 60.6 percent free throw shooter entering the game, hit both free throws with 24 seconds left to make it 84-80. The shots ended a 21-point night for Rayford.
After Reggie Hanson's rebound basket made it 84-82, UK called time with 12 seconds left.
But Richie Farmer was called for an intentional foul on the inbounds pass. The official ruled that Farmer grabbed Roman Banks' jersey and pulled him down seeking to get a charging call.
"I told the staff I don't believe I've ever seen a call like that made against a home team," Sutton said of the intentional foul. "Normally, it's just called a foul."
Farmer, who scored 10 points in his first extended bit of playing time, denied he openly grabbed Banks' jersey.
"I was just trying to get in front of him and get a charge," Farmer said. "I didn't think I grabbed him. Coach just told us that somebody needed to make a big play. That's what I tried to do."
Banks got two free throws with 12 seconds left and made one to make it 85-82.
"Unbelievably crucial," Bell said of the call. "To get an intentional foul is unheard of. Believe me, in Texas, Houston and Ole Miss, they didn't give us a call like that."
Last night's game concluded the six road games that State had to begin the season. The Demons returned home at 3-3.
State retained possession after Banks' free throw, but UK got one last chance after DeWayne Watkins missed a front end of a one-and-one with 10 seconds left.
Farmer missed a three-pointer and Northwestern State rebounded, giving the Demons a 32-31 edge on the boards.
A third critical call that went against UK cost the Cats their best three- pointer shooter down the stretch. Derrick Miller, who hit seven treys against California last week, fouled out on a call the UK coaches questioned. Miller, who played only 13 minutes, had just hit his only three-pointer. It closed UK's deficit to 71-69 with 5:47 left and electrified a worried Rupp Arena crowd of 18,932.
UK's new life dissipated 29 seconds later. With 5:18 left, Miller was called for charging on a fast-break spin move in the lane.
"He just fell," Miller said of the State defender. "We didn't make contact."
Ellis, who at 6-10 towered over Northwestern State, scored UK's first six points and 14 of the first 16. He hit double figures at the 16:13 mark and ended the half with 18, only four short of his career high.
UK's expected dominance was reflected in Sutton's substitution pattern. Farmer and Johnathon Davis, heretofore mostly bench warmers (18 minutes combined in the first five games), got in relatively early.
Farmer entered with 14:01 left in the half. His three-pointer from the left corner gave UK a 19-14 lead. Davis came in with 6:43 left.
Ellis twice provided UK with its largest leads: 33-22 and 35-24. He could have widened the lead had he not attempted to catch a lob behind his shoulder and shoot it before returning to the floor. When he missed the awkward shot, Ellis fouled on the rebound. It was his third foul and he left with 5:24 left.
State closed with a rush. Freeman Williams' three-pointer -- the Demons only trey in seven first-half attempts, made it 41-34. After Deron Feldhaus missed a jumper, Mike Thornton posted up over Mike Scott for a basket that cut the lead to five.
The basket by Thornton, a freshman walk-on who had never played organized basketball before this season, reflected how poorly UK played interior defense.
Northwestern State got 14 of its first-half points off post-up moves.
Despite a quick start by Ellis in the second half, UK could not put Northwestern State away.
"As the game wore on, confidence oozed out of their players," Sutton said.