Date story published: Thursday, December 7, 1995
Kentucky Coach Rick Pitino found a lot to like with the 74-62 victory over Wisconsin-Green Bay last night. Unfortunately for UK fans, what he liked was Green Bay's never-give-up competitiveness.
Pitino ripped his team as a bunch of fat Cats more interested in making highlight films than doing the nitty-gritty essentials.
Full-court pressing served as UK's salvation against Green Bay. The undersized visitors committed 24 turnovers, more than enough for Kentucky to build an upset-proof early lead. But UK's intensity, especially on defense, slackened enough to put a sour aftertaste on a winning home opener.
"We're pressing because our man-to-man defense is absolutely horrible . . . ," said Pitino, putting a particularly negative tone on a familiar early-season theme. "Our attitude toward defense is not good. Tonight, our attitude toward offense was not good. We didn't make the extra pass and find the open man."
Instead, UK looked for the spectacular play after building leads of 22 points in the first half and 19 in the second. Green Bay edged off the brink of a blowout shortly after the Cats threw away two straight lobs. Three times in the final 10 minutes, the visitors closed within 10 points of Kentucky.
"I told the team rather than get dirty, get to the floor first, block out and do the right things, you're just trying to turn on the crowd," Pitino said. "So we'll be a great lob team and have some spectacular dunks and lose by 15 or 20 points each night in our conference."
Leading scorer Jeff Nordgaard, a 6-foot-7 senior forward, kept Green Bay in the game. He scored 29 points, two short of his career high, and grabbed a game-high eight rebounds.
"He's all blood and guts," an approving Pitino said of the 6-foot-7 forward, Green Bay's only productive player taller than 6-4. "If our interior people could play with that toughness, we'd be unstoppable inside on both backboards. I wish we had a few Nordgaards."
Pitino promised to conduct boot-camp practices to instill toughness and attention to defense by Saturday, when Kentucky faces a sterner test in Georgia Tech.
"I'm going to kill them," he said with a crooked smile. "You won't have to worry about substitutions. We'll be down to six by Saturday."
Kentucky (3-1) got balanced scoring. Five players reached double digits, led by Tony Delk's 17. But Delk stayed on the bench the final eight minutes when Green Bay got within 10 points of the Cats. Poor defense was the reason, Pitino said. "Delk, he didn't spell defense tonight," he said. "He'll spell it tomorrow in practice."
Kentucky dominated a barely competitive first half. The Cats led by as many as 22 points in a half devoid of suspense. Delk scored nine of Kentucky's first 12 points. That he didn't score again the rest of the half hardly mattered.
"We were extremely tight," Green Bay Coach Mike Heideman said. "We came down to play competitively. It wasn't real competitive for a long while."
UK steadily widened its lead much of the half. Defense played a key role in the breakout. The Cats held Green Bay without a basket for more than seven minutes in a stretch that saw the lead balloon to 35-13. In a 13-minute stretch, Green Bay got only one basket.
Kentucky's trademark press left Green Bay with more turnovers (12) than shots (11) until the final six minutes of the first half.
At a television timeout with 7:48 left in the half, Kentucky had one turnover and a 26-10 lead. Green Bay had 10 turnovers and 10 shots.
Nordgaard had to carry the offensive burden for Green Bay. No other Phoenix player made a basket until freshman Matt Hill's layup at the 2:24 mark.
Green Bay quietly put together an 11-0 run to reduce Kentucky's lead to 10 points early in the second half. The Phoenix scored the last seven points of the first half. That left the Cats with a 38-24 halftime lead.
When Green Bay scored the first four points of the second half, the UK lead was 10.
Delk calmed the murmuring Rupp crowd with a three-pointer.
Less than two minutes later, Green Bay called a 20-second timeout to regroup. A Ron Mercer dunk off a lob from Derek Anderson awakened the crowd, gave the Cats a 49-34 lead and prompted the timeout.
UK's careless play and Green Bay's devotion to its system kept the margin from blowout proportions. The Cats got careless when the lead reached 18 points. One lob was too high for Walter McCarty. Green Bay intercepted another.
Green Bay got within 10 points three times down the stretch. The Phoenix got no closer.
"We didn't do a lot of things we normally do," UK point guard Anthony Epps said. "We didn't pass the ball. We were probably selfish, and we were taking Wisconsin-Green Bay for granted."