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CATS TURN UP HEAT IN ALASKA

Date story published: Wednesday, December 2, 1996

EDITOR'S NOTE: Because of the extremely late start to UK's game against the College of Charleston in the finals of the Great Alaska Shootout, this story served as the game story, a day after usual publication.

CHICAGO -- Crisp execution repeatedly produced open jump shots or dunks.

Coordinated defense held opponents to lower shooting percentages than what was shot against last season's national champions.

Why, the rebound-deficient Cats held double-digit advantages on the boards against all three opponents, even Jared Prickett made a three-pointer and freshman Jamaal Magloire performed an up-and-under move that would have made Kevin McHale envious.

Kentucky's performance in the Great Alaska Shootout represented the biggest surprise since Pat Boone recorded a heavy metal CD. After the Cats lost their Nov. 15 opener to Clemson, Coach Rick Pitino wondered aloud if the team could qualify for the NCAA Tournament. After winning the Shootout last weekend, he suggested this season's team had no equal among his previous Kentucky teams.

"That's the best half-court execution (offensively) since I've been coach at Kentucky," Pitino said after the Cats whipped a talented and determined College of Charleston 92-65 in Saturday night's finals. "That was phenomenal execution in the half-court game."

UK made 63.9 percent of its shots against Charleston, 72.4 percent (21 of 29) in the second half.

The Cats, who finish a four-game road trip here Tuesday against unranked Purdue in the Great Eight, didn't feast on a hopelessly outmanned opponent Saturday. To get No. 12 Syracuse into the field, Shootout officials had to guarantee that Charleston would be placed in the opposite brackett. "They will be in the NCAA Tournament, and I would not want to play them," Pitino said.

Coach John Kresse's stature as a pre-eminent defensive strategist is reflected in Charleston's ranking in the top 13 nationally in scoring defense in each of its five prior seasons in Division I. In his 18 seasons as a college coach, his teams surrendered as many as 80 points only 16 times in 524 games. Only once before Kentucky had a team scored 90 points - Southeastern Louisiana last Feb. 22.

That Kentucky would run up points seemed unlikely after the disjointed performance against Clemson, which didn't bother Pitino as much as the accompanying disarray in practice each day.

"It's bizarre," Pitino said of the change. "The screening was poor. The passing was poor. The catching was poor. All of a sudden, everybody's catching. Everybody's screening. Great screens. Great passes. No turnovers. When we downscreen now and the guy's curling, they're passing it on the money. Before we were passing in the other direction."

Pitino made it sound like a light switch being turned on. Actually, the transformation came after the coaches made the Cats repeatedly watch their uneven play against Clemson.

"At least 10, maybe closer to 20," point guard Anthony Epps said of the times the players watched the tape. "We had to watch it in disgust. It was a sickening thing to watch."

Pitino used the Clemson tape to appeal to the players' pride.

"I told them good teams don't do any of that," he said. "That's not Kentucky basketball. Is that what you want to look like?"

It wasn't. The Cats aspire to the same heights as last season's team.

"We wanted to prove that that wasn't the real Kentucky team," Epps said of the team attitude in Alaska. "We came out to make a statement. That Kentucky's not fallen off even if we've lost four NBA players. We can be just as good as we were last year."

This season's Kentucky team exceeded last season's champions defensively, at least in the three Shootout games. The Cats held the opposition to 37.7-percent shooting, just 14.6 percent (six of 41) from the all-important three-point range.

Pitino noted that the Shootout required defensive flexibility. The Cats had to contain burly Otis Hill of Syracuse (it helped that freshman point guard Jason Hart got rattled), limit Alaska-Anchorage's well-schooled perimeter attack and then wear down a Charleston team that boasted inside-outside balance but not depth.

"The focus on the scouting report was excellent," Pitino said. "Where in the first game it was non-existent.

"In every phase, I thought we were at clinic pitch. It was a clinic-type performance."

Mercer MVP

The attending media voted Kentucky sophomore Ron Mercer the Most Outstanding Player in the Shootout. He averaged 16.7 points and 6.3 rebounds in three games.

The award surprised Mercer, who scored a career-high 22 against Charleston.

"I expected Derek (Anderson) to get it," Mercer said.

Anderson led UK in scoring in Alaska, averaging 22.3 points. He was UK's only other representative on the 11-man all-tournament team.

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