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Date story published: Saturday, November 25, 1995

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Coaches like Rick Pitino probably dream of openers like Kentucky's last night. The Cats learned a lot of valuable lessons that can only help in this season of great expectations. Better still, UK won while it learned.

Kentucky beat Maryland 96-84 despite a shaky start. The tentative Cats fell behind by 11 inside the first five minutes.

Lesson No. 1: "A lack of transition defense and rebounding," UK's Pitino said. "They kicked our (behinds) on the boards."

Kentucky won despite a shaky finish. The Cats called three timeouts down the stretch as an 18-point second-half lead shrank to six with more than two minutes still on the clock.

Lesson No. 2: "We wanted the clock to run out with five minutes to go," Pitino said.

Despite a jittery opening night Kentucky displayed the talent that got it the No. 1 pre-season ranking. Even with heralded freshmen Ron Mercer and Wayne Turner playing like, well, freshmen, the Cats simply had too many weapons for a Maryland team hoping to prove it can excel without departed All-America center Joe Smith.

UK center Mark Pope thrived in Smith's absence. He led the Cats with a career-high 26 points and won the game's Most Valuable Player Award.

True to UK's one-for-all company line, Pope downplayed his big scoring night. "Maryland was so focused on guarding the perimeter, they had to give up something," he said. "It was not that I did anything spectacular. We were just taking what was there."

Kentucky's heroes included Tony Delk. Plagued by foul trouble in the first half, he scored 19 of his 21 points after intermission. None were bigger than the six straight points he scored after Maryland closed within 86-80.

"Tony stepped up," Pope said. "What he said -- well, he didn't say it, but he said it with his play -- was 'Relax, keep attacking the basket.'

"Tony's going to be a great leader for us."

As expected, Maryland's senior backcourt sparkled. Johnny Rhodes led the Terps with a career-high 30 points. Duane Simpkins added 16.

Kentucky looked top-ranked and just plain rank in an uneven first-half performance.

Maryland was much the aggressor early. The Terps looked quicker and looser. Long passes beat Kentucky's press. Maryland scored layups on three of its first six baskets. Another of the scores was a put-back after a missed layup. Another rebound put-back, this time by Keith Booth, gave Maryland its largest lead, 20-9.

"We had to have the same type of intensity they had," Delk said.

Kentucky played tentatively, as if carrying the burden of being No. 1. Pitino, who after the game again protested the ranking, appeared stressed from the beginning. Less than two minutes into the game, he clearly could be heard yelling, "Get a (multi-syllable expletive) man" when Maryland was slicing and dicing the Cat press.

The early jitters included Pope and Walter McCarty knocking the ball out of bounds as they fought each other for a defensive rebound.

Later, Allen Edwards inbounded to Jeff Sheppard, who quickly returned the ball to its sender. One problem: Edwards had not yet stepped back fully in bounds.

A switch from man-to-man to a 2-3 zone helped steady the Cats. So did Pitino's insertion of third-string point guard Anthony Epps. Both moves came after a television timeout with 11:57 left.

Maryland scored only one basket in the next six minutes. Meanwhile, UK got back in the game thanks mainly to inside power. Pope's dunk put the Cats ahead 24-23 with 8:40 left.

Kentucky pulled away early in the second half. From a 37-35 halftime lead, the Cats rushed to a 55-38 advantage. That added up to a 46-18 run after Maryland's initial 11-point lead.

"Depth was a major factor in the game," Pitino said. "Our press got to them because of depth."

Maryland Coach Gary Williams wasn't so sure. "Where they really hurt us was at the start of the second half," he said. "And we shouldn't be tired then. We just didn't play with enough intensity, and that was the game."

Maryland scored only one basket in the first six minutes of the second half. The Terps' frustrations reached a peak when freshman Terrell Stokes threw a blind behind-the-back pass into traffic. The resulting UK fast break ended with Mercer sizing up, then delivering a one-handed dunk.

Later in the half, Maryland freshman Obinna Ekezie banged a two-handed dunk off the rim.

Maryland trailed by as many as 18 points with less than eight minutes left and by 16 with only four minutes left. But the Terps did not quit.

When Rhodes stole the ball from Epps and drove for a dunk, Maryland got within 86-78 with 2:45 left.

UK called time, but it didn't help. The Terps stripped Sheppard and got two free throws to close within six.

After Epps walked, UK called a second timeout at the 1:42 mark. Epps prevented further bleeding by stealing a feed into the low post. That eased the threat.