Date story published: Sunday, January 14, 1996
Kentucky's 61-44 victory over Tennessee last night proved Vols Coach Kevin O'Neill wasn't kidding earlier in the week when he likened the Vols to an expansion team.
And UK Coach Rick Pitino wasn't kidding when he pooh-poohed the notion that the Cats resembled the Chicago Bulls.
Tennessee played hard but ineffectively, as evidenced by eight assists and 29 turnovers. "We're painful to watch," said O'Neill, a coach with a reputation for brutal honesty. "But you should try putting on a sweatsuit with a Nike swoosh on it and watch (practice). Then it gets really painful."
Kentucky played effective defense in extending a winning streak to 12 games, the school's longest since 1985-86. But with this victory all but impossible to avoid, the Cats strayed from the recent trend of steadily improving offense. UK, 13-1 overall and a league-leading 4-0 in the Southeastern Conference, took more than a few quick shots. Result: a season- low 36.5 percent accuracy.
Pitino cited illness as a factor. Derek Anderson threw up before the game, during the first half and at halftime. Tony Delk, who led UK with 15 points, and freshman Ron Mercer were also ailing. But illness alone did not excuse more Cats turnovers (15) than assists (14).
"We really didn't play good offense," Pitino said. "Fourteen assists aren't good enough. We took a lot of challenged jump shots."
Several follow-up questions moved Pitino to single out Antoine Walker. UK's seldom-shy sophomore gunner pumped up 14 shots. He made two.
"I wasn't happy with him in any facet of the game," Pitino said. "You have to know your shots. If he knows his shots, he'll shoot a very good percentage. If he doesn't, he won't."
Walker needed no prodding to plead guilty.
"I was probably most guilty of (rushed shots)," he said. "I felt like they were good shots at the time. They just didn't fall."
On the bright side, Walker achieved the statistical double-double so coveted by Pitino. He had a career-high 14 rebounds to go with the 14 attempted shots.
UK's defense made victory inevitable. Tennessee, which O'Neill likened to the NBA Grizzlies, was burdened by a grisly performance. The Vols had more than twice as many turnovers (29) as baskets (14). UT fell to 7-6 overall and 1-3 in the SEC.
"They probably forced about 15 of the 29," O'Neill said. "We scared ourselves into 14."
The Vols started two freshmen, including point guard Brandon Wharton.
"It looked like he'd seen a ghost most of the night," O'Neill said.
Tennessee put up some unusually poor offensive numbers in the first half. For instance, the Vols:
Got only one shot to the rim in the game's first 4:20. That shot was a rushed three-pointer to beat the shot clock. It missed.
Scored only five points in the first 11:51. UK led 24-6 with barely six minutes left in the half.
Did not get up a single shot from the 11:50 mark to 8:51.
Scored only one point from 12:32 to 6:16.
"Defensively, we had our 'A' game, and that's what counts," Pitino said. "Whether you're under the weather, having an off night or sluggish (offensively), if your defense is there, you're still going to win."
Kentucky focused its defense on 7-footer Steve Hamer, the Vols' leading scorer (18.7 ppg) and offensive hub. He suffered through a miserable game. He missed his first eight shots and didn't score until he banked in a put-back with 4:21 left in the first half.
"We had a lot of energy because the pace was slow," Pitino said of UK's defensive zeal. "We were able to get to Hamer."
UK freshman Nazr Mohammed added to Hamer's frustration. Mohammed scored his first varsity basket over Hamer, an in-your-face turnaround that rattled through.
Given all that, Kentucky probably should have led by more than 11 points at halftime. But the Cats got away from the patience needed to solve Tennessee's eagerness to defend.
Any lingering doubts about Kentucky's victory disappeared early in the second half. Mercer and Delk hit three-pointers to fuel a 10-0 UK run to begin the half.
Tennessee got no closer than 18 the rest of the way.