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CATS PLAY OFF-KEY BUT STILL TOP OSU

Date story published: Sunday, December 29, 1996

CLEVELAND - The Rock 'n' Roll Shootout inspired one optimistic Kentucky fan last night. Before the game, he held up a hand-written sign that read: "Cats are Rockin' in Cleveland and Rollin' to Indy."

But UK's sloppy 81-65 victory over Ohio State begged for another reference to Cleveland's self-anointed title as Rock & Roll Capital of the World. How about the Cats, like Elvis, were "all shook up?"

Kentucky won despite a season-high 27 turnovers, five more than its total in the past two games. The Cats matched their previous season high (17 against Purdue) by halftime.

"We didn't play well at all," said point guard Anthony Epps, who had only one turnover and six assists. "We were sloppy and lackadaisical throughout the night."

UK (10-1) refused the alibi of overlooking Ohio State (5-4) with archrival Louisville on the schedule for New Year's Eve. Or playing down to Ohio State's level. The Buckeyes, who started five sophomores, committed 25 turnovers.

"Just give it to Ohio State," Allen Edwards said. "They played a good 'intensified' game. I thought they outplayed us."

Yet, Kentucky still handed Ohio State its most lopsided loss of the season.

"I guess you say we're just talented," Edwards said of UK's Fats Domino-sized margin of error.

Though numerous, the turnovers didn't bother UK Coach Rick Pitino as much as defensive lapses. Even holding Ohio State to a single basket in the game's first seven minutes failed to soften his dissatisfaction.

"I think our defense stinks, OK?" Pitino said. "I don't care what we did. That's my opinion of our defense. I don't think it's very good at all.... We're trapping out of weakness - not strength - because we can't contain the ball."

Ohio State shot only 38.1 percent. But the Buckeyes missed several shots around the basket. "If they didn't get easy basekts, we'd have beaten them by 40 points," Derek Anderson said.

Ron Mercer and Anderson led UK with 22 points each. The Cats' version of Lennon and McCartney scored 30 of the team's 36 points in the first half .

But none of Kentucky's George Harrisons or Ringo Starrs made much of an impression until sophomore center Nazr Mohammed came on in the second half. He scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half and matched his career high with 12 rebounds. Late in a still competitive game, he also contained Ohio State center Jermaine Tate. Tate, the Buckeyes' lone contributing player taller than 6-7, scored a game-high 23 points.

"He was the silver lining in the cloud for us," Pitino said of Mohammed. "Nazr played terrific. He was the difference in the game."

Ohio State's embattled coach, Randy Ayers, agreed.

"Mohammed hurt us," Ayers said. "He really hurt us. (Ohio State's) effort was there. And the effort was good. But we're just not big enough yet."

Kentucky jumped on Ohio State early and led throughout the first half. But rather than build a comeback-proof lead, the Cats sank to the level of the opposition. That meant a turnover-filled half that saw Kentucky leading 34-28 at halftime.

UK had Ohio State reeling at the start. The Buckeyes needed a 20-second timeout 44 seconds into the game. The Cats already led 5-0. Freshman Jamaal Magloire sent a message when he came from behind to block what OSU's Jason Singleton had to think was a breakaway dunk.

"I called the timeout just to try to settle us down," Ayers said. "I thought the kids came back and responded."

Had Kentucky been more efficient on offense, the Cats might have led by more than 14-2.

Granted a pardon, Ohio State climbed back into the game. Five straight points by Jason Singleton got the Buckeyes within 17-13. The last two came when he stripped Wayne Turner and drove for a layup.

Ohio State got no closer. Actually, Kentucky's pressure seemed to have the Buckeyes on the ropes moments later. No doubt fatigue contributed to Shaun Stonerook missing a driving dunk off an inbounds pass. After Mercer scored on a soft jumper, Ohio State threw long against the press. Two Buckeyes were open, but neither Tate nor Singleton went for the ball.

Kentucky twice built its lead to 14 points. Still, it seemed like it should have been more.

Pitino voiced his reaction to the disjointed play as Anderson shot a free throw with 4:25 left. After getting Epps' attention, he said, "'E,' get us in an offense where we take good shots."

Ohio State climbed within 32-26 late in the half. Anderson answered. Taking a feed from Turner, who stripped OSU point guard Damon Stringer of the ball, Anderson rose for one of those dunks he likes to collect on video tape. The take-that dunk - and free throw resulting from a blocking foul on Stonerook - eased UK to its eight-point halftime lead.

Kentucky twice established leads of 15 points early in the second half. But Ohio State hung tough.

The Buckeyes got within 56-51 with less than eight minutes left.

Mercer played Mr. Clutch. He came off a Mohammed screen and nailed a foul-line jumper. Fouled on the play, he made the free throw to give UK a 59-51 lead to protect down the stretch.

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