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CATS GIVE UTES THE BOOT

Date story published: Sunday, March 23, 1997

SAN JOSE, Calif. - For a team with supposed depth problems, Kentucky sure had a lot of players yesterday in the NCAA Tournament West Region final.

Locked in a 43-43 tie with less than 10 minutes left, the Cats had enough players to:

* Get points from five different players in a pivotal stretch of the game that came after Utah tied it at 43-43. A sixth Cat, Nazr Mohammed, contributed the screen that freed Ron Mercer for the go-ahead basket, and then blocked Utah's next shot.

* Shrug off a scoreless game by Cameron Mills, its leading scorer in the post-season.

* Limit Utah All-American Keith Van Horn to five baskets.

* Alternate Anthony Epps (better foul shooter) and Turner down the stretch.

* Have one of its point guards, Wayne Turner, pounce on a Utah second-stringer with a questionable basketball pedigree (6-foot freshman from Salmon Arms, British Columbia).

* Beat Utah 72-59 to give Kentucky back-to-back Final Four appearances for the first time since 1948 and 1949. The Cats will play Big Ten champion Minnesota Saturday.

"Kentucky has a very good team," Utah guard Ben Caton said in his concession speech. "I'd hate to see what they'd be like at full strength."

Playing a Utah ranked second nationally and second in the West Region, top-seeded Kentucky did not trail in the game's final 28 minutes. But the Cats faced their moment of truth during a timeout with 9:32 left. Utah had just erased all of what had been a 14-point UK lead late in the first half.

During the timeout, Pitino drew a line down the middle of his portable chalkboard. To the left he wrote the word "winner." To the right he wrote "loser."

"You can leave this huddle a winner if you do certain things," Pitino said. "Or you can leave this huddle a loser. It's your choice. Oh, and I added a few choice words."

Pitino also appealed directly to Ron Mercer, UK's first option in times of stress. After a stellar 15-point first half, Mercer had not scored. "I kept challenging his pride," the UK coach said, "telling him, 'We can't do it without you.' "

Seventeen seconds later, Mercer delivered the go-ahead basket on his patented curl off a (Mohammed) screen for a 17-footer. "My money shot," said Mercer, who led all scorers with 21 points.

Van Horn tried to answer. But Mohammed, a 6-foot-10 sophomore, proved he was nimble enough to defend at the three-point line against an All-American. He blocked Van Horn's shot. "I backed off him because I didn't want him to drive by me," Mohammed said. "I noticed that he noticed that, so I figured (correctly) that he'd shoot."

Another Mercer basket gave Kentucky a four-point lead.

In the next five minutes, four other UK players scored. Twice, Turner tossed lobs that Jared Prickett, no high-riser, neatly laid in the basket. "Just a backdoor play," said Prickett, who admitted surprise that it worked twice. "I think a different player was on me the second time."

Prickett's layups sandwiched an Epps three-pointer.

Then Turner, the fourth UK player to score since the timeout, applied the clincher. It came after Utah's best ballhandler, Andre Miller, reinjured one of his swollen hands and departed with 4:42 left. "I jammed it coming off a pick against a big man and it bent back," Miller said. "I got a shot for pain, but my hand numbed up."

Turner needed 11 seconds to feast on Miller's backup, Jordie McTavish, who looked as weak as his listed stature (6-foot, 164 pounds) suggested. Turner took McTavish's nervous dribble near mid-court and roared to a hanging-on-the-rim dunk.

In explaining the play, Turner all but asked that he not be charged with child abuse.

"I knew he was a freshman," Turner said. "And he looked like he didn't know what play they were running. He showed me the ball. The ball was wide open. He left it right in my face. I had no choice but to take it."

Turner's dunk put Kentucky ahead 56-49. A trey by Scott Padgett, the fifth Cat to score since the winner/loser timeout, put the Cats ahead by 10 with four minutes left.

Utah Coach Rick Majerus saluted Kentucky and conceded he could not punch as many buttons as Pitino. "Every time we made an adjustment, they made an adjustment," Majerus said. "Basically, we ran out of adjustments."

Yes, Mercer played like an All-American, especially when Kentucky needed it most. But UK had plenty of other options even if Derek Anderson (knee), Allen Edwards (ankle) and Jeff Sheppard (redshirt) could only watch.

"Epps has been around a long time," Majerus said. "He's a helluva player. Turner is a great player. A tough kid. And Prickett and Padgett have a lot more skill than people think."

Collectively, Kentucky defended well. After Utah hit its first five shots, the Utes made only five of their next 21.

Kentucky also shot 47.5 percent, the best any Ute opponent has shot since Feb. 1.

Not bad for a UK team that suffers from comparisons to last year's national champions.

"Last year, the horn would go off and they'd be sending in another fleet of players," Caton said. "This year they don't have as much, but they have high-quality players."

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