Date story published: Sunday, February 2, 1997
Kentucky showed yesterday it had improved enough to beat Georgia by a more lopsided score without Derek Anderson than with him. Four points more, to be precise.
But Georgia wasn't on their minds when the Cats tiptoed into the post-Derek Anderson portion of the schedule two weeks ago. UK was - and is - thinking national championship. In that context, the satisfaction of an 82-57 victory over unranked Georgia came with a realization that the make-or-break NCAA Tournament lies barely a month ahead.
"We're still on the improve," UK Coach Rick Pitino said. "Our slide is going up. I hope we have enough time to improve to the level we hope to get to by March. We're kind of running out of time, but we do see improvement."
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Against Georgia, Kentucky got the kind of inside production considered since Oct. 15 critical to another championship run. UK's front line, starters and substitutes, outscored their Georgia counterparts 63-31. That went a long way toward helping the Cats surpass the 86-65 victory at Georgia Jan. 14.
"We are improved," Pitino said before adding, "I feel like there's an hourglass and the sand is running out. We need some time to get better. I'd love to go to double and triple (practice) sessions. But you don't want to wear out a young team. It's a Catch 22."
UK, 20-2 overall, 8-1 in the Southeastern Conference and 4-0 since Anderson tore an anterior cruciate ligament, faces a three-game week. It begins with a showdown at South Carolina on Tuesday night.
Georgia Coach Tubby Smith chuckled when told of Pitino wishing out loud for more time to adjust to life without Anderson.
"I'd like to have his problems right now," said Smith, who suffered the most lopsided loss in his two seasons at Georgia. "I think he's done a good job revamping. We just couldn't stop them inside. They made some shots from the perimeter, too. But where we really got hammered was the second opportunities inside. Those are the ones that really just break your back."
UK's developing centers, sophomore Nazr Mohammed and freshman Jamaal Magloire, contributed 11 points each. Magloire also grabbed nine rebounds and blocked three shots in his most productive game since the Great Alaska Shootout.
"I got to warm up, so to speak, and play my game," Magloire said of his 20 minutes, the most he has played since the 23 minutes he logged in the first Georgia game. "I felt relaxed."
Scott Padgett chipped in 12 and a career-high eight rebounds.
Ron Mercer led UK with 20 points, his highest scoring total since the Dec. 28 game against Ohio State, and a busy stat line: five rebounds, two steals and an assist.
Georgia, 15-5 overall and 4-4 in the SEC, got off to a fast start. The Bulldogs hit their first seven shots and led 17-7 with 14:32 left in the first half.
"It surprised us when they jumped out to that lead," Padgett said. "They didn't do anything in particular. It just surprised us."
Teammate Jared Prickett suggested UK took Georgia for granted. "Offensively, we just ran through the motions," he said. "We were kind of lackadaisical. Then Coach (Pitino) jumped us, and that jump-started us."
Kentucky's defense took over. Georgia made only five of 19 shots the rest of the half, and none of its seven free throws. The Cats went on a 23-3 run and outscored Georgia 37-11 to take a 44-28 halftime lead. Georgia got no closer than 12 in the second half.
"We played good for 10 to 15 minutes," Smith said. "But we couldn't match their intensity. We wilted under the pressure."
Padgett singled out Kentucky's press. Georgia had been averaging only 14.9 turnovers. The Bulldogs had 13 by halftime and by game's end had matched their season high of 24.
"I know from practice," Padgett said. "If we get a couple of steals back to back, it feels like the walls are caving in on you. It's hard to concentrate on scoring because all you think about is breaking the press."
Georgia made only a third of its shots. That marked the fifth time in the last six games the Bulldogs shot less than 40 percent. "They started pressing harder, and it went downhill from there," said Michael Chadwick, who led Georgia with 20 points.
Conversely, Kentucky lowered the opponents' shooting accuracy in the post-Anderson portion of the schedule to 38.2 percent.
Asked about the consistently stingy defense, Pitino refused to gush. "You know, it's just good," he said. "I'm very excited after a game when I pick up a stat sheet. Then I watch the film and certain areas are spectacular: our stance, sprinting and deflections. But ball containment and the rotations are not there yet. I almost like that because if we can get better in those areas, we can be devastating. We almost have to be to advance (deeply in the NCAA Tournament)."
On the plus side, Pitino noted how intensely Kentucky wants to win.
"We have a lot of pride," Jared Prickett said. "We go into every game playing to win. Even if it was the Chicago Bulls, we'd come in to win. We'd probably lose, but we'd play to win."