Date story published: Wednesday, December 4, 1996
CHICAGO - Playing in Michael Jordan's house, Kentucky sophomore Ron Mercer did a pretty good impression of His Airness last night.
Mercer sprung quickly for jams and levitated above the United Center court for sweet jumpers. Besides being aesthetically lovely, the moves added up to a career-high 30 points and contributed mightily to UK's 101-87 victory over Purdue in front of a Great Eight record crowd of 20,171.
"Anything close to Michael, I'd take," Pitino said with a smile. "Ron played a terrific game. Ron's a special sophomore, but I would not want to mention anyone in the same breath with Michael Jordan.
"On the college level, I'd say it was a Michael Jordan performance."
The Cats, completing an exhausting 10-day road trip with a 4-0 record, needed a big game from Mercer. The Butch Cassidy to Mercer's Sundance - as Coach Rick Pitino calls them - struggled. Leading scorer Derek Anderson got in early foul trouble and did not reach double figures until barely five minutes remained.
Purdue (2-2) added to the urgency by going on a three-point binge. The Boilermakers hit 10 three-pointers - matching the total Kentucky had allowed previously this season.
Still, numerous UK players, Mercer first and foremost, enabled the Cats to prevail.
Mercer, who scored a career-high 22 points against Charleston in Saturday's finals of the Great Alaska Shootout, exceeded that number with 4:45 left. A driving dunk did the trick.
Kentucky dressed in the Chicago Bulls' locker room and even worked out in the NBA champions' practice facility yesterday morning, but Mercer said he never noticed the surroundings.
"I never really thought of that. I just wanted to get a win. It was a tight game early, so I didn't have time to think of that."
No. 6 Kentucky improved to 4-1 heading into Saturday's annual basketball holy war against Indiana.
Purdue surrendered more than 100 points for only the sixth time in Coach Gene Keady's 17 seasons. The 101 points were a Great Eight record.
Kentucky's hot and cold shooting - and the effect that had on the Cats' ability to press - told the story of the first half. When UK strung together baskets, the press ate up Purdue. But when UK didn't score, the Boilermakers' half-court offense prevailed. Only one of Purdue's 14 first-half turnovers came in an unhurried half-court set offense.
Kentucky led 46-43 at the break primarily because its opportunistic scoring in transition barely outweighed Purdue's set offense, especially the Boilers' three-point marksmanship.
Purdue held the early advantage. UK missed its first seven shots and didn't score until Chicagoan Nazr Mohammed, the backup center, hit a post-up hook with 15:33 left.
The Cats trailed 4-0 early and might have been down by much more had Purdue not bumbled against the press. In one early stretch of futility, the Boilermakers did not cross halfcourt on three straight possessions.
Inevitably, Kentucky feasted on that ineptitude. Once the Cats began hitting shots, that meant more time to set up the press, which meant more turnovers and more fast-break baskets.
Mohammed's basket began a stretch in which UK made five of six shots. That gave the Cats an 11-8 lead.
Purdue Coach Gene Keady's mounting frustration boiled over with 10:30 left in the half. He was hit with a technical after he yelled "Call the foul" - or more likely a more bracing variation on that theme. Keady dramatically took off his suit jacket to emphasize his unhappiness.
The technical helped UK stretch its lead to 21-15 (the largest lead to that point).
Purdue rallied with three-pointers. The Boilermakers made three in a span of 52 seconds, the third reducing the UK lead to 25-24. In the half, Purdue made five three-pointers - or one fewer than Kentucky yielded in the entire Great Alaska Shootout.
Again, a string of UK baskets and the accompanying Purdue turnovers enabled the Cats to stretch their lead to as much as 44-30 in the closing moments of the first half. An 11-0 Cats run coincided with Purdue turnovers on four straight possessions.
But Kentucky only scored once in the final 3:47. Purdue closed to within three by halftime when center Brad Miller hit a baseline jumper with three seconds left. The shot completed a 5-for-5 shooting half for Purdue's leading scorer.
Kentucky caught what appeared to be a decisive break with 16:04 left in the second half when Miller went to the bench with his fourth foul.
The Cats went inside effectively, and the lead grew to as much as 62-52. But another three-point blitz kept Purdue within striking distance. Four straight Boilers baskets were threes. The fourth reduced UK's lead to 66-61.
An 8-0 run - the first six straight by Mercer - gave Kentucky a double-digit lead to protect down the stretch. UK got an assist in that effort when Miller picked up his fifth foul on a reach-in 20 feet from the basket.
"We're happy with the win but extremely disappointed in the defense," Pitino said. "Teams are shooting too high a percentage against us."
Purdue made 31 of 54 shots for 57.4 percent, bringing the total for UK's opponents this season to 127 of 282, or 45 percent.