Date story published: Sunday, March 17, 1996
DALLAS -- Kentucky had almost as many dunks (nine) as Virginia Tech had baskets (10) in the second half yesterday.
That says it all about the kind of offensive cohesion and defensive intensity that propelled UK to an 84-60 victory in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Region second round.
Kentucky's Killer D's -- dunks and defense -- turned a competitive game into a typical Kentucky rout. UK led 45-38 five minutes into the second half. Then the Cats threw down four dunks inside the next five minutes while limiting Tech to four free throws.
"You don't want time to run out because you're having so much fun," said Walter McCarty, who combined with Antoine Walker for 40 points. "It's kind of contagious. Everybody wants to dunk."
Seven Kentucky players dunked a total of 12 times. Freshman Ron Mercer and McCarty led the way with three dunks each.
Kentucky (30-2), ticketed for a regional semifinal against Utah on Thursday in Minneapolis, dominated inside against a Tech team that downsized its lineup to combat UK's pressure defense.
Walker ignited the breakout by lobbing a pass from near mid-court that Mercer dunked. Then Anthony Epps lobbed a pass that Mercer jammed one-handed through the rim. Then McCarty, who continued a standout post-season, stole a pass and dribbled three-quarters court for a slam.
After McCarty swished a three-pointer (for variety's sake?), Walker dunked home a rebound.
"They were all nice," Walker said in playing along in a rate-the-dunks contest. "I liked my dunk the best."
That might have been Walker's only selfish impulse on the day.
In citing Walker's passing as a key, UK Coach Rick Pitino recalled why he benched the sometimes trigger-happy sophomore from Chicago in the Southeastern Conference Tournament finals.
"A few games back, he was just looking to get off and looking to score," Pitino said. "Now, he's looking to make every single player better. (The benching) was not a penalty. I just wanted him to realize, 'Antoine, if you're not great, we're not going to the promised land.' "
While the dunks rated high for style points, neither Virginia Tech Coach Bill Foster nor Pitino saw the rim-rattling as decisive.
"I remember the dunks," Foster said, "and I remember the transition buckets. But that is not how we got beat. We got beat because we didn't stop the half-court game. They put on a clinic on us in that half-court offense."
Added Pitino: "What really ignites a crowd is great passing. We feed off great passing. A dunk, for our guys, is really an easy play. The pass is the most difficult play."
Pitino repeated his belief that Walker needs a quick start to play well. He got one. Walker posted up for a basket 12 seconds into the game. A few minutes later, Walker even made a three-point shot -- his first since the Feb. 7 game at Vanderbilt.
"I can make the three," Walker said, a bit defensively. "It's all confidence. I know I can knock it down. No problem."
Pitino was less confident. "I was hoping that that wouldn't happen," the UK coach said of Walker's three-pointer.
In contrast to Walker, Virginia Tech's main man struggled. Power forward Ace Custis played more like a deuce (eight points and five rebounds).
"He wasn't ready for us coming down to trap him," Walker said. "I don't think he likes to go outside that much."
Point guard Damon Watlington's three three-pointers helped Virginia Tech stay within 38-30 at halftime.
But the Cats smelled blood. The bleeding took the form of lob passes over tiring Tech defenders.
"We could see they were wearing down," McCarty said. "That's when we try to set a lot of picks, especially back picks. They don't see it coming. They're so tired, they're standing up, not ready to play defense. It catches you so off-guard, by the time you react the play's over."
Kentucky maintained its defensive intensity. With the lead at 45-38, the Cats held Tech to six free throws over the next six minutes and just one basket in the next eight minutes.
"They are a lot better defensive team than a lot of people give them credit for," Tech center Travis Jackson said. "If they are not pressuring the full court, then they are in the half-court man (to man). They do a lot of gambling and make it hard to find the open man."