Date story published: Saturday, November 26, 1988
ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Forget the refrigerated conditions that passed for weather here: temperatures in single digits with ice and snow.
No one called for Kentucky's 56-54 victory over Iona here yesterday to be frozen in time.
Despite playing an ordinary opponent weakened by the loss of, arguably, its three best players, UK flirted with an opening-round defeat before 3,765 at Sullivan Arena in the 11th Great Alaska Shootout.
Victory, UK's first in two games this season, wasn't secured until LeRon Ellis snared a missed free throw with six seconds left to preserve a two-point margin.
Even then, the Cats couldn't edge away from the brink of defeat. Sean Sutton, in an otherwise successful 1988-89 debut, barely reached the front rim with two free throws. But because he was fouled intentionally, UK retained possession and had only to inbound the ball and hold it for one second to win.
Mercifully, this was accomplished. And UK advanced to today's semifinals against Seton Hall, which defeated Utah 86-68 yesterday.
"A typical performance for a very young basketball team," UK coach Eddie Sutton said, smiling. "Up and down. That's the way it's going to be. Not only for our ballclub. When you have many youthful players, you will be inconsistent."
Asked if he were disappointed the Cats, who led by 11 with five minutes left, couldn't cruise to victory, Sutton said: "Not at all. I'm pleased. You tend to be overly critical of your own team."
Iona's coach, Gary Brokaw, wasn't. "I'm proud of them," he said of the Gaels, 0-1.
Iona, which started two sophomores and a freshman, played without its leading returning scorer (forward Nestor Payne), point guard Joey Johnson and shooting guard Glenn Grant. The three were serving a one-game suspension for playing in an unsanctioned summer league.
"No question, we would have been a more cohesive unit (with the missing trio)," Brokaw said.
Instead of the full-court press, which concerned Sutton, the Gaels stayed close with rebounding. Iona held a 46-28 rebounding edge over the same UK team that outrebounded No. 1 Duke 31-27 in last week's 80-55 Tipoff Classic defeat.
Iona was outrebounded by an average of 37.2-34.9 last season.
"Our poorest area was our defensive board play," Sutton said. "If you had to pick one area that didn't allow us to win by a big margin, that was it."
Missed free throws didn't help either. The Cats made only 11 of 19 from the line and missed four in the final minute.
Ironically, Ellis' rebound at the end helped UK win. When Chris Mills missed the front end of a one-and-one with six seconds left, Ellis had only to reach up to grab the long bounce.
"A franchise player," Brokaw said of Ellis, who led UK with a career-high 22 points. "He impressed me against everybody's All-American, Danny Ferry. I thought he outplayed him for 30 minutes."
Of his clutch rebound, Ellis said he abandoned the usual strategy of cutting down the lane for a missed free throw.
"They didn't have anyone to my left, so I decided to fake it," Ellis said. "I just got a lucky bounce."
Sutton juggled the lineup in anticipation of Iona's press. His son, Sean Sutton, and John Pelphrey started in place of Derrick Miller and center Mike Scott.
UK had only nine turnovers with none caused by the press until the final 45 seconds. Then UK committed two. Reggie Hanson's pass was stolen with 45 seconds left and UK ahead 54-50.
Iona got two free throws and had a chance to tie it when a shaky trip up the court ended with Ellis saving an errant pass along the sideline and flipping a blind pass inbounds.
"We're so young we've never been in a game like this," Sean Sutton said. "Everybody tightened up a little. We blew a lead. We did get a little rattled."
Brokaw said Iona altered its press, switching from on-the-ball pressure to covering the passing lanes.
Hanson made up for his errant pass by stealing a feed inside to preserve a 54-52 lead. He then made two free throws to make it 56-52 with 24 seconds left.
Freshman center Kevin Cooper, who led Iona with 13 points, converted the Gaels' last rebound into a basket with 11 seconds left to make it 56-54.
But Ellis' rebound saved the game.
Behind Ellis' 14 first-half points, UK controlled much of the opening 20 minutes.
The Cats led 28-19 with five minutes left. Then Iona scored 10 straight points -- four off rebounds -- to take its first lead: 29-28.
Iona's last lead, 37-36, was erased by a Mills' three-pointer with 12:25 left.
Another Mills three-pointer, part of seven straight points by the freshman, propelled the Cats to a 52-41 edge.
Although an Iona rally fell short, Brokaw pointed to the opening minutes of the second half as decisive.
With momentum there for the taking, the Gaels committed three turnovers without getting a shot. Iona also missed four shots inside, part of a 6-for-17 second-half shooting inside seven feet.
"Again, that's part of being inexperienced," Brokaw said.