Date story published: Saturday, November 16, 1996
INDIANAPOLIS - Any lingering thought of Kentucky as a regal defending champion evaporated here last night. One dubious association with defending a championship survived. Like the last two champs, UK lost its opening game the next season.
With help from Kentucky's spotty foul shooting, Clemson beat the Cats 79-71 in overtime in the Black Coaches Association Classic doubleheader.
Kentucky, rated third nationally in the first Associated Press poll, bore little resemblance to the awesome champs of last season. Still, UK battled till the end.
Rebounding, a point of concern throughout the pre-season, figured in the decisive play in overtime. With 3:04 left and the score tied at 67, Merl Code missed the front end of a one-and-one. Iker Iturbe capped a solid 12-point, six-rebound night by grabbing the rebound.
Clemson capitalized on the bonus possession with a three-point play. Burly Harold Jamison dunked with UK's nominal power forward, Allen Edwards, hanging on his forearm. His free throw put Clemson ahead 70-67, a lead that UK could not overcome.
"That dunk is part of my game," said Jamison, who led Clemson with 20 points. "Just power."
Derek Anderson, who led Kentucky with 22 points, badly missed a three-pointer in the final minute that could have tied it. The shot capped a night that saw UK force shots and generally reinforce Coach Rick Pitino's pre-season warnings.
"We know we haven't played good basketball," Pitino said. "We knew we'd We've practiced four weeks, and I haven't seen a good team. I was very surprised it went in overtime, and we kept it close."
The loss was UK's first in a season opener since Eddie Sutton's last team of 1988-89.
Each team squandered chances to win the game in regulation.
Free-throw shooting killed the Cats. UK had a chance to make four points from the foul line in the final three minutes. Jared Prickett's air-ball free throw - his second of the game came on the front end of a one-and-one - came with 2:57 left and the score tied at 59. Anderson, a 78.4 percent free-throw shooter last season, missed a free throw, then made the second to tie it at 63 with 29.3 seconds left in regulation.
Clemson got the last shot of regulation. Quick point guard Terrell McIntyre penetrated for a turnaround from 10 feet. It rolled off the rim inside the final five seconds.
Still, the Tigers were confident.
"We had played more guys; we were fresher," said Greg Buckner, a native of Hopkinsville. "I could see in their eyes they didn't want to go into overtime with us."
Four of UK's five starters played 40 or more minutes. A fifth player, Anthony Epps, played 31.
"Their defense was better down the stretch than ours," Pitino said.
As expected, Anderson and Ron Mercer led Kentucky. Their play enabled the Cats to take a 37-31 lead into halftime.
Anderson, the one player Pitino singled out as most capable of assuming a prominent role, led UK with 13 first-half points. He also contained one of Clemson's best scorers at the other end. He held guard McIntyre to a single three-pointer and five points. McIntyre ranked second for Clemson with 43 three-pointers last season.
Mercer, a sophomore who used his freshman season mostly as a learning experience, scored nine first-half points. He indicated early how he'll be much busier this season. With 15:19 left in the first half, he had already taken four shots, walked while beginning another move and charged on yet another.
Anderson (nine) and Mercer (eight) took 17 of UK's 29 first-half shots.
Pitino started a small lineup against Clemson. Sophomore Wayne Turner started at point guard and Allen Edwards at power forward. Fifth-year senior Jared Prickett started at center.
UK's hopes of using its small lineup to press Clemson suffered an early jolt. Turner picked up his second foul and departed with 17:49 left.
Veteran Epps stepped in with no appreciable ill effect. Clemson turned the ball over eight times, a large number for a team that registered the third lowest number of turnovers in Atlantic Coast Conference history last season (on average 11.62 per game).
Clemson turned the ball over on its first three possessions, but the Tigers steadied themselves. Thereafter, the first half settled into a competitive exchange. UK's six-point lead at halftime was the largest edge either team had.
Kentucky showed marked improvement in team cohesion, the area Pitino sounded alarms about in the pre-season. The Cats committed only five first-half turnovers, a far cry from the 29-turnover exhibition against Athletes in Action.
Not that Kentucky played a flawless first half. Prickett, who looked effective if not pretty in the low post, suffered greatly at the foul line. His first time at the line resulted in a brick and an air ball. Later he bricked the front end of a one-and-one.
Anderson mindlessly threw up a pull-up air ball from three-point range.
But mostly Kentucky did not look like the same team that tried to strut its stuff against Athletes in Action.
Kentucky extended its lead to as much as 10 points early in the second half. Anderson's steal and driving scoop put the Cats ahead 41-31. A moment later, Prickett laid in an ill-advised Clemson save. Fouled on the play, he even made the free throw to put UK ahead 44-34.
That good karma didn't last. The Cats went scoreless for more than three ugly minutes. In that time, Clemson stripped Mercer of the ball. Edwards charged wildly into a pack of players, then forced a no-chance jumper.
Meanwhile Clemson scored nine points, the last two a layup off a long pass over UK's press. That cut the Cat lead to 44-43. The game was on.