Date story was published: Sunday, February 10, 1991
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Because Kentucky couldn't see the threes for the Woods, the Cats lost 83-82 to Mississippi State yesterday.
Trailing 83-80 with six seconds left, UK point guard Sean Woods drove for a meaningless layup rather than shoot a three-pointer or pass to one of several teammates stationed behind the three-point line.
"Human error, that's all," a teary-eyed Woods said afterward, his voice barely audible.
Kentucky coach Rick Pitino said the Mississippi State scorer's table was tardy in punching up the Bulldogs' 83rd point on the scoreboard. Center Todd Merritt hit one of two free throws after a timeout with six seconds left.
Woods came upcourt in the frantic final seconds unaware the Cats needed three points to tie, Pitino said.
"Sean should have known," Pitino said. "It's human error. It can happen to any youngster in that situation."
UK intended "a three-point shot we practice each day," Pitino said. "It was a great comeback and a disappointing ending for us."
The Cats erased a 12-point deficit inside the final 10 minutes but still suffered a second straight defeat for the first time this season. UK fell to 17-5 overall and 9-3 in the Southeastern Conference. The Cats dropped into a tie with Alabama for the league's best record.
State improved to 15-6 overall and 8-4 in SEC play.
Woods was not alone in failing to rise to the occasion in the decisive final 70 seconds.
Rather than allow Woods an uncontested layup, State point guard Doug Hartsfield maintained a defensive posture, even to the point of challenging the shot.
"I didn't like that too much," State coach Richard Williams said. "I was trying, you know, telepathy: 'Doug, just let him go. Let him go drive and shoot it.' "
Hartsfield said he knew the score and situation.
"It really surprised me," State's point guard said of Woods' drive. "I was relieved. I wasn't going to foul him. I was close because he was trying to dribble into me."
Tony Watts, who scored 20 of his 22 game-high points in the second half, wondered if UK's team knew the situation.
"I don't think they knew the score because when he made it, they all jumped up," Watts said. "I was happy. I knew what the score was. We were up three. I'm glad he drove and Doug didn't foul him."
Misplays by both teams were the norm in the final 70 seconds. State converted just three of what could have been six clinching free throws, each time missing the first but getting a second attempt because UK had committed more than 10 fouls in the half.
Cameron Burns hit one of two free throws to break an 80-80 tie with 37 seconds left.
UK looked to go inside to Reggie Hanson, but Hartsfield stuck out a leg to deflect Woods' feed. Hartsfield quickly retrieved the loose ball while Pitino kicked like a Rockette along the sideline.
"We had a man wide open in the lane," Pitino said. "The guy kicked the ball and the referee didn't call it. It's one of those breaks when the referee didn't see it and it goes against us."
Though he said he did not see the play clearly, Williams said a non-call was correct if Hartsfield did not intentionally kick the ball.
Pitino said he thought Hartsfield did mean to kick-stop Woods' pass.
So did Woods. "He kicked it," Woods said, again barely audible. "He stuck his foot out there."
Hartsfield did not strongly disagree.
"I don't really know if it hit my foot or not," Hartsfield said. "Maybe it did. I was so excited about the steal, I didn't pay much attention."
Fouled immediately, Hartsfield made one free throw with 21 seconds left to give State an 82-80 lead.
However, the Cats again failed to execute.
Pressed by Merritt, freshman Jamal Mashburn flung a desperate feed several feet over Hanson's head.
Kentucky called time with six seconds left, then fouled Merritt on the inbounds pass. His free throw set the three-point margin.
Mashburn, who scored a then-career high 24 points against Mississippi State last month in Rupp Arena, played just 12 minutes because of foul trouble.
The final 70 seconds marred a stunning UK comeback built on some unlikely three-point baskets. Trailing 49-39 with less than 15 minutes left, the Cats made seven of eight three-point attempts thereafter.
The Cats trailed by as much as 62-50 with 9:48 left.
But walk-on Todd Bearup, who had scored four points all season, hit three three-pointers. Bearup finished with a career-high 12 points.
Woods, a 21.4 percent shooter from three-point range, began the run with a trey.
Back-to-back three-pointers by John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus tied it 78-78 with 1:53 left, the first time State did not lead since late in the first half.
Ironically, Woods set up Feldhaus' equalizer by knifing into the lane and whipping a pass back outside.
"He just about destroys us when we don't give help (defensively)," Williams said of Woods' penetration. "We can't stop him one-on-one."
Williams saw a form of justice in the way Woods' final drive short- circuited Kentucky's comeback and preserved State's victory.
"In total honesty, the feeling I had was it would be a shame if our players lost," Williams said. "Because they played so hard and tried so hard to win."