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Date story published: Saturday, December 30, 1995

NEW YORK -- Do you believe in omens? Winning the 1992 ECAC Holiday Festival helped Cat-apult Kentucky to the Final Four.

In completing what appeared to be a revival of the defunct UKIT (three outmanned opponents and UK) last night, the Cats looked like a team headed for a Final Four.

Kentucky buried Iona 106-79 largely on the strength of an overwhelming second half. A devastating 53-33 run in the final 17-plus minutes whipsawed the Gaels. It enabled UK to set a scoring record for the 44-year-old Holiday Festival and sparked talk of Final Four omens.

"We played a team that I think will be in the Final Four," Iona Coach Tim Welsh said. "It's one of the best Kentucky teams in six or eight years."

Despite playing only 22 minutes, Tony Delk led UK with 29 points. The senior guard won the event's Most Valuable Player award. And who could argue? He scored 53 points in the Festival, and made 19 of 28 shots (nine of 12 three-point attempts).

"Delk just killed us," Welsh said. "He was just awesome."

Awesome is becoming routine for Delk. He has scored 116 points in UK's last five games (23.2 ppg).

"I'm just being a little more aggressive," Delk said of his hot streak. "I've just continued to play ball. Coach (Rick Pitino) doesn't want me to pass up any open shots."

Delk joined a former classmate, 1992 MVP Rodrick Rhodes, as the top Cats in the Holiday Festivial. But he said he'd trade the trophy for a guaranteed bid to the Final Four, which will be played across the Hudson River in the Meadowlands.

"Oh, definitely," he said. "I'd trade everything for it. My car."

With the Holiday Festival title secured, Kentucky presumably returns to serious competition Wednesday. The Cats, 9-1 and ranked No. 2, open Southeastern Conference play at South Carolina.

Kentucky's expected cruise to the championship never left the dock in the first half. The Cats never trailed but also never established a double-digit lead in the first 20 minutes.

Foul trouble, Iona's scrappiness and probably a dose of Cat over-confidence contributed to a surprisingly competitive first half. Iona guard Greg Barr's put-back at the buzzer reduced UK's halftime lead to 44-41.

"Fouling is the worse enemy of the press," Pitino said of UK's 25 first- half fouls.

Barr's 15 first-half points neutralized a big half for Delk. He shot up Iona's zone for 13 points despite playing only nine minutes. When Iona switched to man-to-man, Delk drove with purpose to the basket.

"He's a zone buster," Pitino said.

A Delk scoring barrage enabled Kentucky to take the early lead. He scored 10 of UK's first 14 points. Iona stayed close thanks to improbable back-to- back three-pointers. Barr, who scored nine of Iona's first 12 points, banked a three from the top of the key. Thirty seconds later, forward Mindaugas Timinskas, a native of Lithuania, hit an NBA-length three-pointer.

Twenty seconds after re-entering the game, Delk hit a three-pointer. But Sheppard replaced him again at the 6:26 mark. Delk did not return the rest of the half.

Foul trouble meant much bench time for several other UK players. Antoine Walker, one of the heroes in Wednesday's first-round victory over Rider, left with his second foul at 9:23. He was one of four UK players with two fouls.

Mark Pope picked up his third with 7:43 left.

Kentucky built its first double-digit lead early in the second half. Delk's second three-pointer of the half gave UK a 53-43 lead with 17:37 left.

The old staples of Kentucky basketball -- the press and the three-pointer -- ignited a breakout. Iona finally withered four minutes into the half. The Gaels committed three straight turnovers (five-second failure to inbound, inbounds thrown too long, walk at halfcourt).

Three-pointers by Ron Mercer and Delk fueled a 12-2 run that gave Kentucky a 67-49 lead.

Iona, which had only nine first-half turnovers, committed seven in the first 10 minutes of the second. The Gaels' mounting frustration boiled over at the 11:19 mark. Timinskas fouled on Derek Anderson's post-up flash, then drew a technical. The five-point possession (Anderson's three-point play and Epps' two technical free throws) extended the lead to 20.

The only remaining mystery: the final margin.

"I was very happy with the way we attacked the press for the first 25 minutes," the Iona coach said. Depth, he said, explained the second-half collapse. "Our starters play most of the minutes for us. Against Kentucky, that's not a great strategy."