Date story published: Sunday, March 10, 1996
NEW ORLEANS -- Antoine Walker -- referred to Friday as "the straw that stirs our drink" -- broadened the Reggie Jackson analogy yesterday. Call him Mr. March.
Much the way Jackson's clutch play got him nicknamed baseball's Mr. October, Walker rose to the occasion again for Kentucky's top-ranked basketball team. His 21 points and 14 rebounds led UK to a 95-75 victory over Arkansas and positioned Walker for a second straight Southeastern Conference Tournament Most Valuable Player Award.
"I'm a March-type guy," Walker said. "It's the best time of year. I get up for playing in the tournaments. I'm more relaxed. The pressure's off."
Kentucky (28-1) will seek a fifth straight SEC Tournament championship when it plays Mississippi State in today's finals.
Arkansas was expected to pressure mighty Kentucky. The Hogs were the only SEC team to lead the Cats in the second half this season. But Kentucky's awesome rebounding (26 offensive boards and a 52-36 advantage overall) and suffocating defense revealed Arkansas as a pale imitation of its former self.
"Take a look at the freshmen," Arkansas Coach Nolan Richardson said of his four first-year starters. "They all looked like freshmen."
Kentucky, which extended its school-record winning streak to 27 games, paid particular attention to shooting guard Pat Bradley. The freshman from Massachusetts burned South Carolina in Friday's quarterfinals with an SEC Tournament-record seven three-pointers. With Tony Delk spearheading the defense, Bradley got off only seven shots and didn't make a three-pointer until 13:56 remained in the second half. The trey reduced UK's lead to 58-39.
"They don't really have an outside threat besides Bradley," Walker said. "To play us, you need a lot of shooters."
UK also hounded Arkansas' freshman point guard, Kareem Reid. The jitterbug darted here and there but to little effect (2-for-12 shooting and six turnovers).
"They know if I get loose, they're going to be in for some trouble," said Reid, sounding like a freshman. "So they sent three or four guys at me. Every time I got past one, there was another coming from behind me. They really got to us by doing that."
Arkansas (18-12) also played without two players who started at Kentucky last month. The Hogs could have used Jesse Pate's scoring, but especially Sunday Adebayo's rebounding. Both players were declared academically ineligible last month.
"They pounded us on the boards," Richardson said. "We didn't have that extra power person (Adebayo) to kind of withstand some of that."
Despite missing 12 of its first 16 shots, Kentucky never trailed. Walker's rebound put-back gave UK its first double-digit lead at 25-14 with 9:37 left in the half. Put-backs accounted for three of the Cats' final four baskets of the half. Delk's tip-in as the fourth shot of the possession gave Kentucky a 43-29 halftime lead.
The rebounding reflected Kentucky's emphasis on inside play. The Cats believed their defense could contain Arkansas' barely adequate outside shooting. The Hogs' ability to rebound missed shots concerned UK.
"Their first 24 points in Lexington were layups," Walker said. "This time we killed them on the glass."
That Walker led the charge inside spoke volumes about his continued devotion to being a power player. The sophomore from Chicago had a double- double by halftime (11 points and 11 rebounds). Maybe more significantly considering Walker's self-image as a perimeter shooter, he did not attempt a three-point shot for the fifth straight game.
"I didn't like going inside when I was younger," as in last season, Walker said. "When I came to Kentucky, I didn't have much choice. I can play guard. I just grew out of it."
Walker may grow accustomed to being named SEC Tournament MVP. The Arkansas game gave him 42 points and 20 rebounds through two games (17-for-26 shooting).
Walker won last March's MVP Award on the strength of 53 points and 17 rebounds, plus 20-for-38 shooting.
Interestingly, talk of the individual awards come as Walker becomes a selfless player.
"He's really changed his attitude," said Walter McCarty, who contributed 17 points and nine rebounds to UK's inside dominance. "He was kind of cocky. He was really full of himself. He's come down to earth by being around this team."
Not so coincidentally, Walker and the Cats continue to soar to new heights.