Date story was published: Sunday, February 4, 1990
Rick Pitino called it Kentucky's "most intelligent" game of the season.
True, in beating Georgia 88-77 yesterday, his Wildcats alternated the precision of a counterpuncher with numbing automation at the free-throw line. When the Bulldogs overplayed, UK holstered its three-point gun and cut back- door. When the victory had to be clinched, UK made 11 consecutive free throws in the final two minutes, part of a second-half string of 22 straight.
But, added center Reggie Hanson, this was one from the heart, too. UK, he said, had not forgotten the 106-91 beating Georgia administered last month in Athens. In that one, the Cats were outrebounded 53-25.
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Asked how Kentucky scratched and clawed to a 34-27 edge on the boards yesterday against the same Georgia team, Hanson answered quickly. "From having some heart and character for the embarrassment down there," said Hanson, whose contributions included 18 points, eight rebounds and a career-high six steals. "We definitely wanted to pay them back."
UK injected a huge dose of its passion into its defensive effort. The Cats pressed and trapped continually. Full-court. Three-quarter court. Half-court. Georgia paid a heavy price. The Bulldogs averaged 14.7 turnovers entering yesterday's game. Kentucky extracted 33 turnovers, the most by a UK opponent this season.
"When we turn up the heat, we'll create some noise," said point guard Sean Woods, who matched his career high of 20 points.
Noise, Georgia did not need. The Bulldogs were jittery enough, suffering seven turnovers in the first five minutes. That only caused louder roars of encouragement from a Rupp Arena crowd of 24,075.
"They had tremendous pressure," said Georgia point guard Litterial Green, who had 10 turnovers. "A lot of times we'd get by the first or second guy and be in what we thought was the clear. Then somebody would come from behind and slap it away. Usually, one of your teammates is supposed to yell. But the place was so loud, you just couldn't hear.
"We hung ourselves with our own rope with 33 turnovers."
Besides the turnovers, Kentucky's pressure defenses also kept Georgia's Alec Kessler in check. Kessler scored 19 points, but he took only 10 shots.
"We extended our zone and stayed in the press to take Kessler out of the game," Pitino said. "If we allowed them to go inside, we'd have a difficult night. It was a tribute to Kessler. We did not want to make him a factor."
Pitino credited John Pelphrey's illness with helping to inspire the Cats. A case of the flu limited Pelphrey to 27 minutes of reserve duty. Freshman Jeff Brassow started in Pelphrey's place. Though Pelphrey matched his seasonal averages with 13 points and four assists, Pitino said he milked the illness for its psychological value.
Recalling a New York Knick team that won 11 of 13 games without an injured Bernard King, Pitino said he asked the Cats to borrow that team's inspirational rallying cry: "Watch out for the wounded tiger."
A crafty Cat, Derrick Miller, caused Pitino's greatest joy. Miller, who missed all six of his three-point attempts, broke back-door for two big baskets down the stretch. The first gave UK a 65-59 lead with 5:04 left. The second all but clinched the victory. With UK nursing a four-point lead in the final 90 seconds, Miller broke behind Georgia's Rod Cole for a layup. Cole fouled, giving Miller a back-door version of a three-pointer and UK had an 82-75 lead.
"He made a good cut, it was a good pass and there was nothing I could do," Cole said. "It wasn't really surprising. Most teams do that. He just did what he was supposed to do."
Finally, Pitino said.
"I've been trying all season to get him to fake and go back door," Pitino said. "For me, that was a highlight. Tonight he saw the effect of going back door instead of just staying on the perimeter.
"In the beginning of the year, we were taking too many three-pointers. Now we're understanding teams are playing for the 'threes.' We're getting back- door cuts. That's what's making me happy. We're not forcing the 'threes.' This was the most intelligent we've played all season. It was the best we've executed."
Whether its play was brainy or straight from the heart, Kentucky found its spark in Woods. He had 16 second-half points, including six in the final four minutes. He also had four steals.
"Sean played as good as he's played as a Wildcat," Pitino said. "I thought he was outstanding."
That was saying something considering Woods had a season-high seven turnovers.
Though burdened with a 33-turnover handicap, Georgia fought to the end. UK, which had 21 turnovers, missed a chance to break it open in the first half. The Cats made only 36.1 percent of their first-half shots.
UK led by no more than seven points in the first half even though Georgia had 19 turnovers by intermission.
Neither team could break away in the second half. Georgia got even at 59-59 with 6:13 left.
Kentucky took a lead it never surrendered when Hanson broke the tie with a top-of-the-key jumper. The shot began a 6-0 run that gave Kentucky a lead to protect. The first of Miller's baskets off back-door cuts ended the run.
Georgia challenged with three-pointers, four of its six coming in the second half. UK protected its lead at the foul line.
"It's so frustrating to keep fouling them and thinking they've got to miss sooner or later," Green said. "But they canned each one. We thought maybe this would be like the LSU game. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn't."
On Jan. 24, LSU missed the front end of 10 of 11 one-and-ones down the stretch and Georgia stole a 94-92 overtime victory at Baton Rouge.
Yesterday, UK made 22 of 23 free throws in the second half.