Date story published: Monday, March 3, 1997
The best team won on Kentucky's Senior Day yesterday. But surprisingly - and for the first time since 1964 - that team was not Kentucky.
South Carolina established its superiority by beating UK 72-66. The victory gave the Gamecocks sole possession of the school's first Southeastern Conference championship in any sport and left a revenge-minded Kentucky two games in arrears.
"You've got to say that," UK point guard Anthony Epps said of South Carolina being the better team. "They beat us twice. And we have goose eggs against them."
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South Carolina, which became the first team to beat a Rick Pitino-coached Kentucky team twice in the same season, led much of the game. And when UK rallied to build its largest lead - four points - midway through the second half, the Gamecocks grabbed this game by the throat by scoring on nine straight possessions.
"Whew!" South Carolina Coach Eddie Fogler said when told of the 9-for-9 proficiency in the clutch. "We've become a very good team."
South Carolina, which won for the 18th time in its last 19 games, improved to 23-6 overall and 15-1 in the SEC. Kentucky fell to 27-4 overall and 13-3 in the league.
UK Coach Rick Pitino, whose flagrant technical foul with four-tenths of a second left carried an automatic ejection, saluted his team's conqueror.
"They made some big shots," he said of the Gamecocks. "They are a big-shot team. They are a better team than we are. This is not a fluke because we tried as hard as we could. We are a little green in certain areas with a lot to learn. They are a lot more experienced in four positions."
Poor shooting handicapped Kentucky from the start. The Cats missed their first seven shots, setting the tone for poor shooting by every Cat not named Ron Mercer. Mercer made nine of 19 shots, and accounted for 16 of UK's first 21 points. His teammates made 14 of 52 shots (26.9 percent) against a South Carolina team that played zone.
"The goal in my mind was they had to beat us from outside," Fogler said.
Nearly half of UK's shots came from beyond the three-point arc (29 of 71).
"They gave us shots," Pitino said. "It was one of those nights when the open shots did not go down. Even though they were open, we lived a little too much on the perimeter. We didn't have much of a post-up game."
South Carolina scored the game's first seven points, and led by as much as 11 early. UK did not lead until the 19:21 mark of the second half (Allen Edwards hit a leaner in the lane while being fouled).
Wayne Turner's free throw with 10:14 left capped a 13-2 run that put Kentucky ahead 49-45.
Kentucky appeared headed to victory. The Cats had held South Carolina without a field goal in the last 11:12 of the first half. But instead of UK's defense growing stronger, South Carolina scored on nine straight trips downcourt (and would have had a 10th if Ryan Stack had not missed two free throws). The Gamecocks' heralded trio of guards - Melvin Watson, Larry Davis and BJ McKie - accounted for six of those scoring possessions.
"We didn't panic," Watson said. "We took time off the clock. That's maturity. Just using the clock and getting the shots we wanted. That's the difference between now and December. Back then, we were jacking it up real quick and not getting good shots."
South Carolina's efficiency -58.8 percent shooting in the second half - created a 62-56 lead with 4:57 left.
An Epps three-pointer with 3:17 left- the first points scored by a UK senior on Senior Day - reduced Kentucky's deficit to three. His second trey got the Cats within one, 65-64, with 31.7 seconds left.
But South Carolina refused to yield. The Gamecocks made 10 of 12 free throws in the final two minutes. The final clinching four, which came with four-tenths of a second left, showed how hotly competitive the Kentucky-South Carolina games have been this season.
Carolina, which beat UK in overtime in Columbia last month, led 68-66. The Cats called time with 1.8 seconds left. After checking UK's defensive alignment, South Carolina called its own timeout.
The strategy called for Stack to run out of bounds to receive a pass from McKie, then throw the ball inbounds to McKie.
"Not a very good call on my part," Fogler said. "My assistants didn't want me to do it. To tell you the truth, they wanted me to throw it three-quarter court" and leave UK with not much more than a halfcourt heave.
Instead, Epps switched off Stack and arrived under the basket as McKie stepped in for the inbounds pass.
The collision left Epps on the floor. No call. "I guess I was a second or so late," Epps said. Said McKie: "He kind of jumped into me. He kind of acted on the charge. But it could have gone either way."
That no call was made at all angered Pitino, who charged the court and appeared to bump referee Andre Patillo. That drew a flagrant foul and automatic ejection.
"If it's a charge, if it's a block, when two players smash into each other, something must be called," Pitino said.
McKie, who was fouled immediately after the no-call, capped his team-high 22-point game with two free throws. Davis then made two technical foul shots for the final score.
Fogler brushed aside a question about whether McKie charged or Epps blocked with a bottom-line declaration:
"The better team won here today."