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CATS HEAD WEST AT THEIR BEST

Date story published: Monday, March 10, 1997

MEMPHIS - Peaking at The Pyramid.

Kentucky stamped that process complete yesterday by routing Georgia 95-68 in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game. The Cats never trailed in the three victories here that earned the school's fifth SEC Tournament championship in the last six years. After the first basket of each game, UK's three opponents kept the score tied for only a total of one minute, 10 seconds.

"Since I've been here, we have not played three games as well offensively and defensively, from an execution standpoint," UK Coach Rick Pitino said.

Ever? Surely last season's national champions, "the Untouchables," played better in a trio of games.

"No, I don't think so," Pitino said. "We have put on a murderous press. The combination of offense and defense, I don't think we've executed as well."

Offensively, Kentucky shot 60.7 percent against a Georgia team that held its three previous opponents here to 38.9 percent shooting. UK had not shot so well since the Purdue game Dec. 3 (60.9 percent) nor scored so many points since a Dec. 23 rout of UNC-Asheville (105-51).

Defensively, Kentucky hounded Georgia into a season-high 24 turnovers. The Cats outscored Georgia - get this! - 42-7 in points off turnovers.

Pitino acknowledged Georgia's handicap of playing a fourth game in 64 hours. "They were spent emotionally," he said. "They were spent physically. That wasn't the real Georgia team because of the fourth night."

Georgia Coach Tubby Smith said fatigue "magnified" the Dogs' problem in matching up with UK. But that didn't take away from his admiration for how Kentucky played.

"I was impressed," Smith said after the most lopsided loss of his coaching career. "I believe they can repeat (as national champions). Look around the country. They're playing as well as anybody. I would think Kentucky's the best team in the country. They're playing better than anybody else."

The Cats so dominated Georgia, one UK fan grew impatient for fresh conquests. A voice from the crowd shouted "We want South Carolina" as Allen Edwards prepared to shoot free throws with 12:46 left in the game. Kentucky led 66-35.

Kentucky did not wear down a Georgia team trying to become only the second team to come out of the first round and win the SEC Tournament since its 1979 revival. Instead, the Cats put the game away early when Georgia was relatively fresh. UK's pressure defense and uptempo offense battered the Dogs from the start. Georgia had four turnovers in the first four minutes. By halftime, a Georgia team that had committed no more than 14 turnovers in any of its three previous games here had 15 giveaways. Kentucky converted those mistakes into an overwhelming 24-1 advantage in points off turnovers.

Kentucky's active defense also shut down Georgia's three-point attack. The Dogs had made 10 treys in each of their three previous SEC Tournament games here. The Cats held Georgia to 1-for-7 shooting from three-point range in the first half, and 5-for-22 in the game.

Kentucky was just as crisp offensively. The Cats shot 57.6 percent in rolling up a 44-29 halftime lead.

Pitino credited Kentucky's new, quicker lineup for its dominating play here. Wayne Turner penetrated defenses. A more mobile two-man front line of Jared Prickett and Scott Padgett made opponents pay for sagging inside defensively.

Pitino also noted another factor. "I'm always putting on the board: Be a risk taker," he said. "Don't be afraid to take chances. Don't be afraid to do things."

Kentucky looked unusually comfortable from the start. How often had Prickett, who made the all-tournament team, driven to a resounding dunk? How often had zone buster Cameron Mills, a hero in Saturday's semifinal victory over Ole Miss, pulled up off the dribble and hit a leaner in the lane? How often had freshman center Jamaal Magloire driven deftly down the lane and banked in a shot? How often had walk-on Stephen Masiello swished a shot from just inside the three-point line?

Anthony Epps, another all-tournament selection, and Mills had career scoring highs (22 and 16 points, respectively). All the while, sophomore star Ron Mercer, the tournament's most valuable player, anchored the onslaught with 20 points and a team-high six rebounds.

Georgia went on an 11-0 run in the second half. But the Dogs were still a long way from scaling Kentucky's peak. The run reduced UK's lead to 23 points.

Kentucky had routed Georgia twice in the regular season, by 21 and 25 points. But not like this. Not so completely from start to finish.

No wonder Georgia guard Ray Harrison, another all-tournament selection, said of the Cats, "Kentucky showed another them today."

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