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CENTERS STEAL ATTENTION AS CATS RIP VOLS

Date story published: Sunday, January 5, 1997

Big news at Rupp Arena yesterday. A two-man tandem led Kentucky to a 74-40 victory over Tennessee. And it wasn't Derek Anderson and Ron Mercer.

Tennessee, which boasts the Southeastern Conference's stingiest defense, grounded UK's celebrated "Air Pair." For the first time this season, both Anderson and Mercer failed to score in double figures (eight points each).

So big men Nazr Mohammed and Jamaal Magloire did the heavy lifting for No. 3 Kentucky. They combined for 25 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks despite lacking a catchy nickname.

"Don't call them 'Twin Towers,' " Anderson said. "Kentucky's already had that."

Hmmm. How about "King" and "Kong" as the nickname? "Nah," Anderson said. "King Kong lost."

In the nickname department, Tennessee's "Bruise Brothers" -freshmen Charles Hathaway and C.J. Black - dominate Mohammed and Magloire. But the Rupp court, especially around the baskets, belonged to the UK big men.

"We're getting better and better with our young players," UK Coach Rick Pitino said. "They're a major factor now. I can't say enough about both those guys and their development. I think we're going to have a doubleheader at the center position that's going to be as good as this league has seen in some time as they mature into their junior and senior seasons."

More immediately, the victory over Tennessee reassured those who pin Kentucky's hopes for a second straight national championship on the development of Mohammed and Magloire.

"If they can give us what they did (against Tennessee), we're going to be a heck of a ball club," Pitino said. "Because they both had a great post presence. They were major factors with their shot-blocking. They played a very intelligent game."

Mohammed made the game's most memorable play, a baseline-to-baseline sparkler surely headed straight for "SportsCenter." It began with him deftly reaching around Hathaway to tap away a low-post feed. As he retrieved the loose ball, the 6-foot-10 sophomore from Chicago neatly dribbled behind his back to keep Brandon Wharton from regaining possession for Tennessee.

"He just dived at me, and I did the first thing I could do," Mohammed said. "I've tried that many times. Every big guy works on dribbling. What he probably shouldn't be doing."

"He actually does it in practice," Pitino said of the king-sized Magic Johnson move. "He goes behind his back, but he never goes anywhere."

This time, Mohammed smartly fed the ball ahead and got downcourt in time to score a transition layup while being fouled. The three-point play put UK ahead 21-7 in a game the Cats never trailed. It also brought a roar from the Rupp crowd of 24,091.

"Mohammed's going to be a hell of a player," Tennessee Coach Kevin O'Neill said. "It looks like he shed that weight jacket he had last year."

Mohammed, who has lost about 60 pounds since his senior year of high school, finished with 12 points and seven rebounds in his first home start. He denied being nervous even though his first shot was an air ball, the second a miss and his third touch a catch he fumbled out of bounds.

"I shot my shaky shots at the beginning," he said. "I had to realize it's just a practice in front of a lot of people."

Magloire, who lost his starting position at Louisville on Tuesday, added a team-high 13 points and six rebounds.

"I have to do the little things, like rebound and block shots," the big man from Canada said. "My offense will come. I'm sure I'll be a much different player later than I am now. Every day I feel I'm improving my game."

To help Magloire develop low-post moves, Pitino recently instituted a no-dunk rule in practice for the 6-10 freshman. Magloire probably took the idea a bit too far against Tennessee when he softly laid in an opportunity for a breakaway dunk.

"I wanted to show coach (Pitino) a lot of different things," he said. "I have to become a more complete player."

"Magloire's as aggressive a young man as I've seen in awhile," O'Neill said. "He wants to take your head off."

Neither Mohammed nor Magloire said he was inspired by a matchup against Tennessee's "Bruise Brothers." But Magloire did note there was "a lot of hype with the Tennessee big guys coming out of high school."

Speaking of hype, Tennessee lived up to its billing as a tenacious defensive team. The Volunteers were ranked first among SEC teams in scoring defense (57.1 points allowed on average), first in opponents' shooting percentage (34.5 percent) and second in three-point defense (27.4 percent).

That Mercer and Anderson never got going (a combined seven of 18) spoke to Tennessee's ability to defend.

"We went in wanting to take those two guys out," O'Neill said. "For all intents and purposes, we did what we wanted to do defensively. Our problems are on the offensive end, and I don't see that getting a ton better in the near future."

The inexperienced Vols - one junior college transfer breaking up a monopoly of freshmen and sophomores - shot only 28.3 percent (the third time this season UT shot less than 32 percent).

Like Mohammed and Magloire prevailed in the battle of the developing big men, Kentucky won what became a defensive struggle.

"It was a down-and-dirty and hard-fought game with great man-to-man defense," Pitino said. "We played terrific at the defensive end."

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