Date story published: Sunday, February 16, 1997
Derek Anderson dressed but didn't play yesterday. Then again, maybe he did. Ron Mercer put together a pretty good impersonation of Anderson in Kentucky's 85-56 victory over outmanned Florida.
Mercer mixed a team-high 23 points with career highs of eight assists and eight free-throw opportunities, both among Anderson's many specialties before he tore up his right knee in January.
"I saw a lot of what I want to do," Anderson said of Mercer. "Early in the season, he concentrated on scoring. Now, he sees the whole court. When I went out, he didn't have anybody else to do it - 'til he started doing it himself."
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UK Coach Rick Pitino linked Mercer's "fantastic game" to Sunday's victory over Villanova. On that nationally televised stage, Mercer had 23 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and two steals. In three games last week, he averaged 20.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.7 steals.
"The Villanova game was a great impetus for him to move to a new level and keep it at that level and set that standard," Pitino said. "And he's done that."
But Mercer, who also had three steals and four rebounds against Florida, said he has not concentrated on trying to fill Anderson's role or to build on a previous performance. Rather, he's tried not to concentrate on anything at all. When Pitino stopped trying to get him to focus on a certain aspect of the game, Mercer said, his overall performance improved.
"It's just a matter of going out and letting things happen," he said. "(Pitino) tried early in the season to get me to do certain things. Now he just lets me play. He stays on me on the defensive end. Everything else, I have to work out. Just let me play, and it'll happen."
Mercer made it happen even with the game out of reach late in the second half, when he probably should have been next to Anderson on the bench. He was still diving for loose balls. Asked about the risk of injury by playing Mercer 33 minutes, Pitino said, "You know, this could be Ron Mercer's last go-around. And he deserves to play."
While lauding Mercer's latest performance, Pitino insisted the heralded sophomore had not assumed Anderson's leading-light status.
"I don't think a sophomore can ever say that," Pitino said. "We don't have a (leading) person. When people say Derek's the leader, Derek's obviously the best player. Ron certainly is the best player, but this has to be a collective team effort for us to win."
Florida - which ranked No. 148 on last week's Rating Percentage Index (below every other Southeastern Conference team, plus such previous UK patsies as UNC-Asheville at No. 118 and Canisius at No. 110) - offered little competition. Kentucky (24-3 overall, 10-2 in the SEC) never trailed against a Gator team that started two walk-ons.
But just to be sure the Cats took care of business, Pitino said he threatened to punish the players if they took Florida lightly.
"... We grade this game like every other game," the UK coach said. "We told the players if the defensive levels aren't up to the levels we want, we'll put in some penalties. I think that's necessary."
"Just running," Pitino said. "Pain. Something demented and sick."
Pitino issued his perform-or-else message at Friday's practice. He wanted solid blocking out in rebounding, ball containment and proper rotations on defense. Or... "He said there'd be hell to pay, or something like that," a smiling Scott Padgett said.
UK stifled Florida's offense, which ranked first among SEC teams in three-point goals (8.9 a game) and three-point percentage (37.8) and third in scoring (75.4). The Gators matched their season-low for first-half scoring with 26 points, and that included a three-basket flurry in the final 1:14, one being point guard Eddie Shannon's unreal whirlybird hook shot in the lane. Shannon led the Gators with 21 points.
Florida also matched its season-low of 56 points, first scored in a 56-50 victory against slow-down Tennessee.
"We played excellent defense most of the night," Pitino said. "We were very focused. We have to play this type of defense to win. We need great play from a lot of people to win. This is not the team of last year. It's not the team with Derek Anderson. But it's a remarkable group. I may be more proud of this basketball team than any I've ever coached for what they've had to overcome.
"I don't remember us ever getting blown out in a long time. These guys are a gutty group. They never say die. They play to win all the time."