Date story published: Saturday, December 17, 1988
For only the second time in UKIT history, Kentucky lost in the first round.
But for the second time in 10 days, a UK loss fit a maddening pattern. In losing 56-54 to Bowling Green last night, the Wildcats first teased a Rupp Arena crowd into thinking a blowout victory was coming. Once a double-digit first-half lead was squandered, a frantic UK comeback fell short.
Northwestern State revisited. UK lost 85-82 last week to the Demons.
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Last night's loss banished UK to the UKIT consolation game for only the third time ever. UK, 3-5, will play Marshall for third place tonight. Bowling Green, 5-2, will play Arkansas State for a championship that Kentucky had won nine straight years.
In the previous 35 UKITs, Kentucky had won 27 and been beaten in the first round only in 1957 (77-70 to West Virginia) and 1978 (73-69 to Texas A&M).
Sloppy play, season-low shooting (32.8 percent) and Bowling Green's guards did in Kentucky. UK committed 17 turnovers and never seemed mentally in the game.
"This has to be one of the biggest wins -- if not the biggest win -- in our school's history," Bowling Green coach Jim Larranaga said. "You could really sense Kentucky's players might have been thinking of Northwestern. Experience tends to be both positive and negative. Their experience against Northwestern weighed heavily on their minds in the late stages of the game when we made a comeback."
Bowling Green's guards overcame a slow start (one-for-eight in the first half) to shoot UK to defeat. Joe Gregory and sub Darrell McLane combined for 23 second-half points. That production fueled a comeback that erased a 34-22 UK lead early in the second half and put Bowling Green ahead 52-46 with 3:47 left.
The Falcons led 54-47 with 2:17 left when UK mounted a final desperate charge.
Reggie Hanson, who led UK with 14 points, hit a shot in the lane. LeRon Ellis snapped out of his gamelong snooze to flip in an improbable left-handed shot in the lane. Ellis' basket and resulting free throw made it 54-52 with 58 exciting seconds left.
UK had to commit three fouls to get in a position to send Bowling Green to the foul line.
An unexpected bonus came when Derrick Miller had a Falcon inbounds pass bounce off Gregory into his arms.
But Miller hurried a pass downcourt that Gregory ran down.
"I saw they were trying to lead (Chris) Mills with a pass," Gregory said, "but I got out far enough to pick off the ball."
Miller, who had four turnovers and two points, said: "I thought Chris would keep running, but he didn't."
UK had other chances. After Gregory's two free throws made it 56-52 with 28 seconds left, Richie Farmer missed a three-pointer.
But Farmer made amends by defending Gregory into a turnover on an inbounds pass.
Typical of this sloppy game, UK muffed two inbounds passes that used up four precious seconds. With 11 ticks left, the Cats got the ball inbounds. Farmer, who despite four-of-12 shooting, provided a spark, hitting a driving shot that made it 56-54 with five seconds left.
When Bowling Green center Ed Colbert couldn't inbounds the ball in five seconds, UK got yet another chance.
After another UK inbounds pass was tipped away, Farmer got the ball from about 20 feet on the left side. His hurried shot went in and out.
"Our bench was holding their breath," Larranaga said.
However, UK was gasping much of the second half and Coach Eddie Sutton agreed memories of the Northwestern State loss may have been the reason.
"In the second half," Sutton said, "when I looked in some of our players' eyes, they were certainly remembering the nightmare we had against Northwestern State."
And like underdog Northwestern, Bowling Green gained confidence when Kentucky could not pull away.
The Cats led throughout the first 30 minutes last night. The largest lead was 26-13.
A horrible stretch to start the second half kept UK from expanding a 32-22 halftime lead. Thr Cats went zero-for-five from the field and committed five turnovers in the first six minutes.
Meanwhile, Bowling Green grabbed the initiative.
"We inserted McLane in the lineup," Larranaga said. "He immediately hit a three-pointer and that finally got us going."
Bowling Green had made only seven of its 29 shots (24.1 percent) prior to McLane's three-pointer. Thereafter, the Falcons made 13 of 21 (61.9 percent), including four more three-pointers.
"After I made my three-pointer (which cut UK's lead to 34-25), I felt great," said McLane, BG's top scorer with 16 points. "My confidence was up and I thought, 'Hey, we have a chance to win.' "
Bowling Green got even at 40-40 with 10:40 left and took its first lead, 44-42, on a Gregory jumper with 8:14 left.
When Gregory hit a three-pointer with 6:34, Bowling Green took the lead for good at 47-44.
"All I can remember is, I looked up at the clock and we were up by three and I thought, 'Ooooooh, we can win this game.' "
Neither team shot well in the first half, by percentage or by style points. UK hit 14 of 37 shots (37.8 percent) and led 32-22 at the break. The Cats had several no-chance jumpers, but their most futile moment came when Ellis clanged a two-hand rebound stuff off the rim and Mills' tentative 2-footer fell short.
Bowling Green was even worse. The Falcons made only 31.8 percent of their shots. The visitors' worst shooters came into the game advertised as their best. Guards Billy Johnson, Gregory and McLane -- all double-figure scorers -- hit only one of eight shots.
At one juncture, the Falcons had one basket and one free throw to show for 10 possessions. Three turnovers and one-for-six shooting squandered the rest.
In one hilarious stretch, Johnson was called for walking after being clipped by Deron Feldhaus. Colbert missed a two-hand layup on the next possession. To complete the terrible trifecta, Gregory took a pass while standing on the sideline.
After all that, UK could claim no more than a 15-10 lead.
"Strange game," Larranaga said.
Farmer's three-point shooting over Bowling Green's zone defense generated what little excitement the first half contained.
Farmer came into the game for Miller with 17:09 left. Miller had hoisted two bricks and fumbled a pass away to that point.
Farmer drilled his first shot, a three-pointer from the top of the key to snap a UK scoreless streak of six shots and push the Cats to a 6-1 lead.
Farmer hit his next shot, too, another three-pointer.
Later in the half, after Sean Sutton missed a top-of-the-key jumper, Farmer came in and hit another three-pointer to give UK a 20-13 lead.
The Cats extended to as much as 26-13 in the half.
Then the Northwestern State syndrome set in.
Sutton declined to speculate on what psychological damage was inflicted. Tune in tonight, he said.
UK's players weren't available for interviews until almost midnight. In what was considered unprecedented, UK's radio team had no player to interview.
Angry shouts between coaches and players could be heard behind the locker room door.
When it opened, the players were asked what happened.
"We were really honest with each other," Sean Sutton said. "I'll just say there's going to be an different attitude and I think people will notice it."