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CATS STAY COOL, OUST IOWA 75-69

Date story published: Sunday, March 16, 1997

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah - Yes, Dionne Warwick, Kentucky knew the way to San Jose even though the Cats found themselves in dangerously unfamiliar territory.

The front-running Cats, who led the nation in victory margin for a third straight regular season (21.7 points a game), found themselves locked in a one-possession game in the final 30 minutes.

"A pressure-cooker," UK Coach Rick Pitino called it. Thanks largely to Wayne Turner and Scott Padgett, the Cats did not get cooked. Kentucky outlasted Iowa and its wondrous point guard, Andre Woolridge, 75-69 last night in the NCAA Tournament West Region second round.

The victory advanced Kentucky to next week's West Region semifinals in San Jose, Calif. The Cats (32-4) will play plucky St. Joseph's, which beat back Boston College in the other second-round game here.

Pitino saluted the UK players, especially Turner and Padgett, for playing fearlessly as the tension mounted. Turner and Padgett scored 11 of UK's final 12 points.

"I tell the players you don't want the clock to run out, keep attacking," Pitino said. "Wayne Turner epitomizes that more than any player I've ever coached."

Turner, who had 13 points, hit three of his favorite shots (driving leaners in the lane) down the stretch. "Usually, when I'm coming off a pick that close to the hole, very few times do I miss that shot," he said.

Padgett, who hadn't scored in the previous 14 minutes, drilled a three-pointer that gave Kentucky a 70-64 lead. When Iowa closed within 72-69 in the final minute, Padgett coolly hit a pull-up shot in the lane with 28 seconds left.

Woolridge, who in his senior season became the first player to lead the Big Ten in both scoring and assists in a single season, almost single-handedly kept Iowa in the game. His 29 points were the most scored by a UK opponent this season (Vanderbilt's Pax Whitehead had 27 in Nashville). And he committed only four turnovers against the Cats' constantly hounding pressure defense in 38 minutes

"What a way to go out," Turner said, admiringly.

But Woolridge had only one basket in the final 12 minutes. For keeping Woolridge under 30 points, UK credited a new defense picked up from watching Illinois defend Iowa. The Cats played man-to-man until the shot clock reached 15 seconds, then switched to a 3-2 zone.

"Pass along my thanks to Lon Kruger," Pitino said of the Illinois coach.

The first half suggested the tight, taut "war" that Pitino so often predicts but his team so often blows to smithereens. Kentucky left the floor at halftime tied with Iowa 35-35.

UK and Iowa exchanged the lead 15 times in the first 20 minutes. Iowa's 30-25 lead with four minutes left was the biggest cushion either team had.

In the first half, Jared Prickett supplied much of the inside play that Pitino placed such a high priority on Friday. The fifth-year senior arguably never looked so assertive and sure of himself in his 139-game UK career (which tied Ralph Beard's school record for games played).

Prickett scored 13 of the team's first 18 points, and led UK with 15. But it was how Prickett scored that so impressed. He posted strongly. He banged in traffic for a tip-in. He drove for a rousing dunk in transition. He took a lob and confidently banked in a layup.

Despite Prickett's scoring, Kentucky could not break away from Iowa. As expected, Woolridge provided a steadying influence that few Cat opponents possess. He scored 13 first-half points. His repeated drives helped push Kentucky into serious foul trouble (12 first-half fouls).

When Woolridge somehow banked in a three-pointer from the right corner, Iowa had its only second-half lead, 38-37, with 19:19 left.

"When he banked in the three, I thought we were in big trouble," Pitino said. "I can't say enough about this Andre Woolridge."

Kentucky managed to build an eight-point lead early in the second half. But Iowa - more correctly, Woolridge - hung tough. Woolridge scored Iowa's first 13 points of the second half. Aside from the banked three-pointer, the rest of his points showed a skilled offensive force. He spun in a pretty reverse layup after driving under Nazr Mohammed. He left Turner, then Mercer flat-footed on turnaround jumpers.

"Wayne played great defense on him," Padgett said of Woolridge. "He's so strong he could back Wayne down and then hit a fadeaway. It was sort of like what Michael Jordan does in the NBA. For a while, he was unstoppable."

Kentucky extended its lead to as much as 10 points while Iowa waited for someone other than Woolridge to make a basket. That achievement came when Kent McCausland hit a three-pointer in transition with 7:59 left. The shot started a 7-0 run that ate up much of Kentucky's final 10-point lead and set the stage for a who-will-blink-first finish.

That UK prevailed inspired Pitino to offer his ultimate compliment: He compared the Cats to his beloved 1987 Final Four team at Providence.

"I didn't think I could arrive at a day when I was as proud of a team as the 1987 Providence team," he said. "I think this team, from a pride standpoint, rivals that team. Whatever happens to these guys, they absolutely play with the most pride and tremendous heart that I've ever seen."

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