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UK EXPRESS STOPPED BY STATE

Date story published: Monday, March 11, 1996

NEW ORLEANS -- Fate placed the Mississippi State and Kentucky locker rooms along the same exit off the Louisiana Superdome court. The convenient logistics gave Mississippi State forward Russell Walters a chance to launch one more shot at Kentucky.

As he carried the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship trophy off the court and neared State's locker room, Walters couldn't resist making a statement at reporters waiting outside the closed UK locker room door.

"How about 'dem' Cats?" Walter shouted after State's stunning 84-73 victory over top-ranked Kentucky.

A moment later, point guard Marcus Bullard arrived barking like a dog.

Finally, State's big dog yesterday came into view. After glad-handing with fans, junior college transfer Dontae' Jones neared the State locker room. He paused at a television camera long enough to blurb, "Feels good. Feels wonderful."

Jones, a Nashville high school dropout working at a Kenny Rogers Roasters five years ago, buried Kentucky with a career-high 28 points and an unmistakable UK-can-be-beat attitude.

"Oh my goodness, everything he threw up he was knocking down," UK point guard Anthony Epps said of Jones' 12-for-18 shooting. "You could tell he was in a zone because he was really getting in the flow of it.

"And he was like a coach on the floor. He took charge of their team and put it on his back and they really rode him well."

State, which won its first SEC Tournament, improved to 22-7.

UK, 28-2, saw a string of accomplishments come to a screeching halt. The loss snapped the nation's longest winning streak at 27 games, the consecutive victories over SEC teams at 26 and the number of SEC Tournament victories at 14 and championships at four.

"It was a long run," UK forward Antoine Walker said. "We had fun doing it. But now we have to start a new run. And this is the best run of all."

Kentucky, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region, begins NCAA Tournament play Thursday in Dallas against San Jose State.

UK Coach Rick Pitino termed the loss a "reality check."

"We'll guard the three-point line better than that the next time," he said. "We'll be frightened of that line next time."

State made nine three-pointers -- four of four by its chief perimeter shooter, Darryl Wilson -- en route to the best shooting by a Kentucky opponent this season: 54.4 percent.

With its inside attack blunted by State's 6-foot-11 center Erick Dampier, UK struggled to its worst shooting percentage of the season: 33.3. The Cats' top four scorers -- Tony Delk, Walker, Walter McCarty and Derek Anderson -- shot a combined 14-for-50.

The combination of cold shooting and Jones -- especially Jones -- contributed to Kentucky's second halftime deficit of the season, 43-38. Only Georgia Tech had led UK at intermission: 41-38, more than three months ago (Dec. 9).

Jones, a talented if sometimes wild colt of a player, burned Kentucky for 17 first-half points. He demonstrated early that he was on his game. His dunk after double-clutching under a defender put State ahead 5-1 two minutes into the game.

Jones hurt UK from various spots on the floor. He hit three three-pointers. He hit a turnaround shot from the low post. He banked in a basket. He pulled up in transition and slipped in a soft leaner.

Jones capped his first-half highlight reel with a pretty fast-break layup created by his 360-degree spin through two defenders.

"He made a lot of difficult shots," Pitino said. "What I call NBA shots."

Kentucky appeared to get a huge break shortly after Jones' spinning layup. He limped to the State bench with 4:22 left in the half after having a previously injured foot stepped on.

But having gained confidence from Jones' play, the Bulldogs refused to yield. Even offensive non-entities Whit Hughes, Bart Hyche and Tyrone Washington -- each with one previous basket in the tournament -- contributed buckets. Hughes hit a layup off a feed from Dampier. Hyche, so frail he might be mistaken for a junior-high player, confidently hit a baseline jumper.

Washington's put-back gave State its largest lead, 65-46, with 12:51 left. That matched Kentucky's largest deficit this season (29-10 against UMass).

Kentucky rallied to within 77-68 down the stretch. State wobbled (21 turnovers) under the Cats' frantic pressure and superior depth. But the Bulldogs did not crumble.

"We were concerned about their depth and our lack of depth," State Coach Richard Williams said. "But I thought if the game was close at the end, our emotion could overcome our fatigue. That's exactly what happened."

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