Date story published: Wednesday, February 21, 1996
After helping mightily to bump off Alabama last night, Kentucky center Mark Pope took dead aim at UK Coach Rick Pitino.
Pope, whose 13 points, eight rebounds and four steals rated a standing ovation from the Rupp Arena crowd as he left the floor, bumped chests with a startled Pitino before he took a seat with 2:11 left in Kentucky's 84-65 victory.
"I don't know if Coach liked that very much," Pope said. "Being a senior, I figured I'd earned the privilege."
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Actually, Pitino didn't like the gesture. He loved it. It reflected the kind of loosey-goosey attitude the UK coach felt Pope needed to be most effective.
"I think that kid is really losing it," Pitino joked. "He's really going crazy . . . I want him as loose as possible."
Pope's play helped neutralize Alabama center Roy Rogers, who came close to his third triple-double of the season (seven points, 11 rebounds and nine blocks).
During a decisive first-half breakout, Pope soared for a dunk off a lob from Walter McCarty. "That might be the last time I ever jump," Pope said with his typical self-effacing style. "I've got old legs."
When Alabama rode a rash of three-pointers to turn a laugher into a chuckler, Pope provided a punctuating moment. He dunked over Rogers.
Pope's offense brought cheers, but UK's defense paved the way to victory. The Cats simply smothered Alabama as evidenced by 17 steals and the Tide's 36.8-percent shooting.
"The defense was great the whole night," Pitino said. "It was one of our better conference games from a fundamental standpoint."
Rogers saluted Kentucky's defense, too.
"They totally took me out of the offense . . . ," he said. "It's frustrating. Every time I turned around, I had at least two men around me, hacking and pushing."
The victory was Kentucky's 22nd straight. Only three other Kentucky teams have won more consecutive games in a single season: the school-record 25 in 1953-54 and the 23 straight in 1965-66 and 1951-52. The Cats will go for 23 straight Saturday at Florida.
Kentucky improved to 23-1 overall and 13-0 in the SEC. The latter clinched UK's second straight league's overall regular-season championship, and 38th in school history.
Alabama, which could only hope its face-saving second-half rally impresses the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, slipped to 14-9 overall and 7-6 in the SEC.
Kentucky's defense dominated the decisive first half. The Cats held Alabama to one basket in the final 11:12 en route to a 44-20 halftime lead. The offense wasn't bad either. The Cats committed only two turnovers in the first 20 minutes.
The first nine minutes gave promise to a competitive game. Beginning with the game's first basket, Kentucky took it to Rogers. Tony Delk posted up guard Marvin Orange and somehow scooped a shot under Rogers.
Anthony Brown's post-up basket bought the Tide within 16-14 at the 11:12 mark. Alabama would score only one more basket the rest of the half -- Marco Whitfield's three-point heave as the shot-clock expired with 3:48 left.
Alabama, which ranked 10th among SEC teams in shooting (41.3 percent in league games), struggled mightily to get a good shot. The Tide made only seven of 30 first-half shots (23.3 percent). Leading scorer Eric Washington (18.0 ppg) made only two of 12 first-half shots. He ended up shooting 3-for-14.
Alabama's frustrations boiled over when referee Jim Burr hit Coach David Hobbs with a technical foul. It came with 1:25 left in the first half, moments after massive Thalamus McGhee leveled Derek Anderson with either an inadvertent elbow or Anderson fooled the refs by flopping.
During his pre-game comments Monday, Hobbs hinted that he expected to be frustrated by the refs. Of UK's aggressive defense, he said, "They wear down the referees, too. They certainly get a lot of balls knocked out. They strip more than anybody in the world."
Anthony Epps' two technical free throws helped UK score the half's final 12 points. Added to another 12-0 run earlier in the half, it helped make for a 28-6 Kentucky advantage in the final 11 minutes.
Alabama's frustrations showed early in the second half. Rogers, who prided himself on keeping blocked shots in play, swatted an Anderson shot into the second row behind press row.
Fueled by three-point baskets, Alabama made a mild run at the Cats. The Tide hit six three-pointers -- five baskets in a row in one stretch -- in the first nine minutes of the half. The sixth brought Alabama within 57-42 and prompted a 20-second UK timeout with 11:00 left.
But Pope's authoritative dunk over Rogers with 7:42 left signaled Kentucky would not be denied.