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WILDCATS RIP GATORS, 1-UP UMASS

Date story published: Sunday, February 25, 1996

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- To the long list of hurdles easily cleared by Kentucky this season, add the Sports Illustrated cover jinx. UK capped the week in which it appeared on the magazine's supposedly unlucky cover by solidifying its claim as college basketball's No. 1 team yesterday.

By handing outmanned Florida its worst home-court loss since 1958-59, the Cats rushed into the void created when No. 1 Massachusetts lost earlier in the day. But the magazine's stinging profile of Rick Pitino diluted the pleasure he took from UK's 94-63 victory.

"I've been jinxed, believe me," Pitino said. "Because I've been through a week of hell. . . . It's a jinx for me. It may not be for the team."

Ever looking for any edge, Pitino made a case for UMass remaining the No. 1 target of the college basketball world. That way his steamrolling Cats could stay relatively forgotten at No. 2.

"I wouldn't vote us No. 1," Pitino said in his post-game news conference. "Because they have only one loss. We have one loss. And they beat us. Why should they lose it?"

Kentucky (24-1 overall, 14-0 in the Southeastern Conference) continued to make a compelling case for being the best team in the nation. The Cats never trailed in running their winning streak to 23 games, the nation's longest active winning streak and the school's longest in a single season since Rupp's Runts (1965-66).

"We're happy to be No. 1," said Antoine Walker, who led UK with 20 points and 11 rebounds. "We feel we deserve it. (UMass) beat us at a time we weren't healthy and we weren't together."

Kentucky was both against poor Florida (10-14, 5-9). No statistic better showed UK's total domination than this: Cat reserves outscored Florida's subs 46-0.

"That's our game," said Derek Anderson, a reserve this day because Pitino turned sentimental and started Sunshine State native Allen Edwards at small forward. "That's Kentucky. If you get to our bench, that's not a good idea."

Kentucky had more double-figure scorers (six) than Florida had scorers (five).

"It says we're very deep and we have much more talent than they do," Pitino said of the 46-0 depth charge UK fired at the Gators. "Obviously, there's a tremendous talent disparity between the two teams."

This game testified to Kentucky's improved inside game, a bugaboo in recent seasons when the Cats depended heavily on perimeter shooting.

"We did an outstanding job running our half-court offense," Pitino said. "That's what got us a lot of high-percentage shots, and we fed off that and our defense kept kicking in."

Walker's double-double (his sixth of the season) helped the Cats to a 51-30 rebounding advantage.

"I think they're the best basketball team in the country," Florida Coach Lon Kruger said. "The big difference for them this year as compared to the past is they do a great job of posting up strong and feeding the post well. That's what separates them from the rest of the pack."

UK also displayed better low-post defense. Florida's main man, bulky Dametri Hill, annoyed the Cats in Lexington last month with a career-high 29 points and 10 rebounds. This time he had 24 points and 10 rebounds (his eighth double-double of the season), but eight of the points came in the final four meaningless minutes.

"It's difficult for him," Walker said. "They look for him 90 percent of the time. He needs help."

Florida's 37.7-percent accuracy helped the Gators live down to their reputation as one of the SEC's worst shooting teams (ranked 11th overall and in three-point shots). Take away Hill's 9-for-15 shooting and the Gators made 30.4 percent (14 of 46).

Still, Florida hung around for a while. Kentucky led only 31-24 with 3:46 left in the first half. But a 10-3 mini-spurt gave UK a 41-27 halftime lead.

"He said we were sluggish in the first half," Edwards said of Pitino's halftime rhetoric.

Sluggish? The Cats had more assists (12-5), more rebounds (25-16), fewer turnovers (8-6) and shot a better percentage (44.4 to 38.5).

"We had only 11 deflections," Edwards said.

Asked if the players wondered whether Pitino's complaints were more an attempt to motivate than note serious flaws, Edwards smiled and said, "I'm quite sure he does. If he looks at us when he says something like that, we look confused. Like what does he want?"

Pitino wants to be No. 1. Just not right now.

"It sounds like a broken record," Anderson said, "We want to be No. 1 at the end of the season."

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