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UK'S 23 STEALS KEY TO 89-70 VICTORY

Date story was published: Thursday, January 10, 1991

It's a bit late now to notify the authorities, but a good deal of thievery took place last night at Rupp Arena.

Kentucky, playing the role of accomplished pick pockets, recorded a Rupp- record 23 steals en route to an 89-70 victory over visiting Mississippi State and first place in the SEC.

"They were all over us tonight, really all over the court," said State center Todd Merritt. "As a team, we wanted to take it inside, but we could never get it past halfcourt."

Freshman forward Jamal Mashburn scored a career-high 24 points. Senior center Reggie Hanson had 19 points and nine rebounds as Coach Rick Pitino's 11th-ranked team improved to 11-2 overall and 3-0 in the Southeastern Conference.

Make that atop the SEC. Probation would keep UK from officially claiming the league crown. But Florida's 72-64 loss at Alabama last night leaves Kentucky as the SEC's only unbeaten team.

On defense is where the predatory Cats got the job done. Poaching off the press, they forced Mississippi State's veteran team -- four senior starters -- into a jaw-dropping 31 turnovers. All but eight of those were credited to steals -- breaking the old Rupp mark of 21 set against Austin Peay in 1986. Mashburn and Jeff Brassow had four each. John Pelphrey, Sean Woods and Deron Feldhaus were all credited with three each.

In fact, UK raised its total to 15 robberies before MSU happened upon its first.

"This is the hardest I've ever had a team play defensively in my life, no matter what the situation was," Pitino said. "I've never had a team play that hard on the press and be that active."

How active? Pitino's game goal is 35 deflections. "And we'd not been getting that," he said. By halftime last night, UK had 33. By game's end, the total was 57.

"That's almost off the charts," Pitino said. "I've never had stats like that as a coach."

"The thing that we feared the most happened," State coach Richard Williams said. "That was us not being able to take care of the basketball against Kentucky's pressure. We don't have good ball handlers and passers and we paid a price for that."

Thus the Bulldogs fell to 9-3 overall and 2-1 in the SEC. Cameron Burns, State's senior forward, scored 21 points. Burns and running mate Greg Carter each grabbed 12 rebounds. But MSU still has not won in Lexington since 1967, its drought running to 23 straight games, 15 at Rupp.

"But I don't know if anyone is going to beat them here," Williams said. "They're good."

Pitino jokingly credited last night's triumph to Cawood Ledford, who, during the taping of Pitino's pregame show, remarked that maybe UK was ripe for a letdown. "I was a basket case after that, I was so worried," Pitino said.

Or maybe it was the presence of football coach Bill Curry, who, along with son Billy, sat on the UK bench. "He was looking tough as nails," Pitino said. "If we did anything bad on the floor, he was going to kick their (butt), I just knew it."

Not to worry; UK needed no help in the rear-kicking department. Pitino said he wanted to make it a "94-foot game," and of MSU's first 31 possessions, Cat pressure needled the Bulldogs into 15 turnovers. During one stretch of 16 possessions, State turned the ball over 11 times.

"Alabama's defense was one of the toughest I ever faced during last year's SEC tournament," State guard Tony Watts said. "But they were really tough tonight."

"We came out and got a couple of quick turnovers," Brassow said, "and they started getting rattled and frustrated and that just compounded it."

Consequently, after an early 8-6 MSU lead, Kentucky took control for good. Feldhaus, coming off a 27-point effort against LSU, nailed a three-pointer from the top of the key and the roll began.

Baskets by Mashburn, Junior Braddy and a backcourt steal-and-stuff from Brassow pushed it to 23-12 eight minutes into the game. It was 41-33 UK at halftime, with Mashburn scoring 16.

"We were not going to get the three-pointer because Richard does such a super job scouting," Pitino said. "We wanted to go inside 90 percent of the time."

Goal accomplished. Mashburn took 15 shots in the first half. No other Cat attempted more than four.

"But even with the 18 first-half turnovers," Williams said, "I thought we had an opportunity to be close enough to win the game in the second half."

The visitors did make a run early. After Hanson opened the second half with a bucket, State's Cameron Burns scored back-to-back hoops, cutting the deficit to 43-37.

"When we got it down there in the scoring area we were able to make some baskets," Williams said. "We just had a lot of difficulty getting it to the scoring area."

With 14:39 left, State trailed 52-45. But Richie Farmer scored off a Feldhaus assist. Hanson buried a three-point bomb. And Sean Woods drove around a Mashburn pick for a basket and a 14-point UK bulge.

The largest lead was the final margin of 19, first achieved at 79-60 with 3:36 remaining.

"People that don't coach basketball I don't think can understand how well coached that team is," Williams said. "And they play with the most concentrated effort of any team I've seen in this league in a long time."

And it could continue.

Said Williams, "Kentucky is going to be difficult for anyone to beat, if they continue to play the way they're playing."

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