Date story was published: Sunday, January 13, 1991
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Poise. Smarts. Execution. Clutch performances.
Gobbling momentum as the season unfolds, Kentucky had it all last night in a 78-74 gut-check victory at Tennessee.
The Wildcats, winners of seven straight, also had a bit of good fortune.
Allan Houston, Tennessee's all-Southeastern Conference guard, had the ball in his hands needing a three-pointer to tie it at 77. A trey from Houston, the SEC's second most prolific three-point shooter (3.2 per game, on average) meant overtime. He had only to maneuver by Jamal Mashburn, a talented freshman but, it figured, no match for Houston in the open court.
"Since he's a guard and I'm a forward, I thought, 'please pass the ball,' " Mashburn said. "And, sure enough, he did."
Houston, the game's high scorer with 20 points, passed to fellow guard Lang Wiseman for an uncontested three-point attempt from the left wing.
"It's the kind of shot you want," said Wiseman, who got free off a pick. "Everything worked. The shot just didn't go in."
The ball went in and out, foiling a strategy concocted during a Tennessee timeout with 26 seconds left.
"That was the shot we wanted," Tennessee Coach Wade Houston said, "because people are using different combination defenses on Allan in that situation. I assumed Kentucky would, too. Although it wasn't a combination defense, he'd have to shoot over a taller player as opposed to Lang with a wide-open shot. And that's just what we got. It just didn't go in."
Fouled on the rebound, Reggie Hanson shook off a poor free-throw shooting night (seven of 14) to hit a clinching free throw with 10 seconds left.
So, never mind Hanson's earlier misses.
Never mind Mashburn on Houston.
"It was bad," point guard Sean Woods said of the Mashburn-Houston matchup, "but we won the game. So it didn't matter."
Kentucky Coach Rick Pitino embraced the victory -- the Cats' 12th in 14 games and fourth without a loss in the SEC.
"We really needed a game like this on the road: close and tight," Pitino said. "It makes you stronger. You don't let the crowd take over. This is the type of adversity you need to become an even stronger team."
Most pleasing, he said, was Kentucky's execution at crunch time.
"At the offensive end, we executed down the stretch as well as you can," Pitino said. "We made all the right plays offensively in the last two minutes."
Pitino considered Tennessee dangerous coming off a 108-68 loss at Vanderbilt last Tuesday.
"They really played super basketball," Pitino said. "Looking at the film, they had been quick-shooting and not executing. Tonight, they executed the best as any team has against us in the half-court."
UK just executed a little better, said Wade Houston, visibly relieved despite the loss.
"We're a better team than we've shown recently," Houston said. "This was no fluke tonight, believe me. It wasn't a case of us being so psyched up for Kentucky."
Three full days of practice made a big difference for his inexperienced team (four sophomore starters), Houston said. It marked the Vols' first extended practice period since early December.
In a flashback to UK's morale victories of a year ago, Tennessee could live with this defeat, its fifth straight and ninth in 15 games. The Vols fell to 0-4 in the SEC for the first time since the 1960-61 season.
"Winning or losing wasn't our measuring stick tonight," Wiseman said. "Just playing hard and giving a good show was."
For most of the game, three or fewer points separated the teams. UK led by seven once, 75-68, with 3:56 left. Tennessee's largest lead came five minutes earlier at 65-60.
"The credit goes to Rick and the Kentucky team," the Tennessee coach said. "They got the big baskets when they had to. They got the big rebounds when they had to. And they did what they had to do to win the game."
John Pelphrey got a few of both. Pelphrey air-balled the game's first field-goal attempt, a three-pointer on a set play off the opening tap. But Pelphrey hit three three-pointers in the second half.
As for big rebounds, Pelphrey tipped his own miss in the lane to Mashburn so UK, ahead 75-74, could keep possession inside the final minute.
Woods, a 60-percent free thrower, made Pelphrey's tip pay off. Woods made two free throws with 32 seconds left to give Kentucky a 77-74 lead.
Wiseman's miss secured the victory.
Though far from flawless in the first 20 minutes, Tennessee showed in the first half it had forgotten the 40-point debacle at Vanderbilt earlier in the week.
The Vols rode Houston's 13 first-half points to stay close. Kentucky led 44-42 at intermission after a half that saw nine ties and four lead changes.
Houston scored 10 of his points in the final 11 minutes. Two of his baskets gave Tennessee its largest first-half leads. An open 15-footer (Woods, defending, slipped) gave the Vols a 27-25 lead.
The other two-point Tennessee lead showed how much the Vols depend on Houston. He had to save a tipped pass, then work one-on-one past Pelphrey to hit a contested baseline jumper to give the Vols a 29-27 lead.
Throughout, neither team yielded.
UK took its largest lead, 75-68, on a Hanson three-point play with 3:56 left. The Cats did not score another basket, but survived with big plays.
"It shows what a difference a year makes," Hanson said of Kentucky's survivability. "We learned a lot last year as far as how to play on the road."
The key, Hanson said, is "keeping your poise. You've got to play a lot smarter and a lot harder on the road."