Date story published: Tuesday, December 24, 1996
Christmas Eve dawned last year with Kentucky sporting a 7-1 record, a No. 4 national ranking, and visions of an NCAA title dancing in Wildcat fans' heads.
This day before Christmas, little has changed.
UK's 105-51 rout of North Carolina-Asheville last night in Rupp Arena left the No. 3 Cats 9-1 and looking every bit a championship contender, at least to their fans.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Coach Rick Pitino, who usually bah-humbugs such talk, must be feeling the holiday spirit. After last night's game he called off practice for today, although there will still be workouts on Christmas.
"I realized C.M. (Newton) was in the back of the (locker) room and I didn't want him to think I was Scrooge," Pitino said. "The players are very happy about getting a day off. I've never seen such jubilation. It rivaled the NCAA championship.
"So I am Santa Claus."
The Cats gift-wrapped a special performance for their coach against UNC-Asheville. They had season highs in points, three-pointers (16-for-33) and assists (32), to go along with season lows in points allowed, turnovers (eight) and fouls (15).
"I really love our unselfishness and passing," Pitino said. "Even when we were missing our shots, we had terrific ball movement."
As usual, UK's dynamic duo led the way. Derek Anderson had 23 points, seven rebounds, four assists and four steals. Ron Mercer had 18 points and five assists.
But Pitino singled out Allen Edwards for special praise after his 17-point, six-assist effort.
"He is playing fantastic basketball," Pitino said. "He's a big key for us.
"When we inserted him, we not only got good three-point shooting, we got a lot of interior drives.
"He is probably the smartest basketball player I've coached."
Setting the tone for UK's pass-happy offense last night was senior guard Anthony Epps, who had 11 assists to push him past 400 for his career.
UNC-Asheville's strategy for survival was obvious in the first half. On offense it milked the clock whenever possible, and on defense it packed its zone, content to let UK play bombs-away.
"Some teams might go zone for a half or for part of a game, but I was surprised they did it the whole game," Anderson said.
The Bulldogs' tactics worked, at least for a while. With nine minutes left in the half they trailed by only five - 22-17.
Then reality set in, along with UK's pressure defense and sharpened shooting eye.
Edwards' twisting layup got things going for the Cats, followed by a steal by Anderson and an Epps three-pointer from the left corner.
Jared Prickett picked off the in-bounds pass and fed to Edwards for a lay up. UK's seven points in 20 seconds pumped the lead to 29-17.
"We score in such incredible flurries," Pitino said. "The other coach is trying to call a timeout, and you see and dunk and a three before he can get it.
"It's like a Sonny Liston punch. It happens - boom-boom - and you don't even see it."
If UNC-Asheville wasn't dazed at that point, it may have at the next break in play when Doug Bruce, the Rupp Arena public address man, announced Jamal Mashburn had entered the game for UK.
Oops. It was Jamaal Magloire.
It didn't make much difference. Over the next three minutes the Cats stretched their lead to 18, with Cameron Mills knocking down a pair of threes.
That pretty well summed up UK's offensive might for the night. The Cats launched 20 three-pointers in the first half alone, and the 16 they made for the game eclipsed by one their season-high last year.
"They just have too much firepower," Coach Eddie Biedenbach said. "I don't know of anybody as quick as they are. Their ball movement is so quick, it's hard to get out there and cover the threes while you're trying to jam the middle, too."
For most of the first half, UNC-Asheville managed UK's pressure nicely, especially considering it was without Vincent Krieger. The junior point guard broke his cheekbone against Marshall Saturday night.
The Bulldogs made four early turnovers, then went nearly 10 minutes without one. That enabled them to work their half-court slowdown.
But the inevitable happened as UK forced 11 turnovers in the last seven minutes of the half as it built a 22-point lead.
The second half provided plenty of highlight film material as UK handed UNC-Asheville its worst loss as a Division I school.
The most dazzling came courtesy of Mercer, who took a Wayne Turner pass and threw down a one-handed jam.
Pitino was impressed. He thought the play's timing was off - the leaping Mercer was on his way down. But Mercer somehow reached back, and muscled the ball through with a vicious slam.
"I don't see how he could humanly dunk that basketball," Pitino said. "I asked him, 'How'd you do that?' He said, 'I don't know."'
* UNC-Asheville lost to No. 1 Kansas 105-73 on Dec 15, so the Bulldogs knew they'd be asked to compare the Jayhawks and the Cats.
"I'll wait till they go head-to-head and see who's the toughest," he said.
Two of his players bit.
"It's two different styles," said Robert Stevenson, who had 19 points against KU and 15 against UK. "Kansas is big and methodical; Kentucky is like a blur."
Guard Mike Matthews called UK's press "hellacious.
"And with Kansas you can key on certain players," he said. "But on Kentucky, everybody can shoot."