Date story published: Wednesday, January 14, 1998
Maybe there are no superstar players like Ron Mercer and Derek Anderson. Maybe their new coach does not wear Armani suits and pitch his own brand of pasta, gourmet coffee, Ford Explorers and motivational advice.
But Kentucky's surprisingly effective basketball team did something last night its more celebrated predecessors of last season could not. That is beat South Carolina.
Fueled by its best shooting of the season and its one-for-all versatility, Kentucky beat the defending Southeastern Conference champions 91-70. A season-high 12 three-point baskets, a season-high 25 assists and a season-low seven turnovers reflected a UK team inspired to avenge two losses to South Carolina last season.
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"I know they wanted to win this game pretty badly," UK Coach Tubby Smith said. "I could see they were focused and ready to play. I think it was our best overall game."
To its credit, South Carolina did not roll over. Even after falling behind by 12 inside the first four high-decibel minutes, the defending Southeastern Conference champions got back into the game.
"We competed hard," South Carolina Coach Eddie Fogler said. "We just got hit by a buzz saw."
A three-pointer by Jeff Sheppard, who led UK with 16 points, produced the largest lead: 72-49.
South Carolina's frustration boiled over late in the second half. After a scramble sent players diving to the floor in front of the Gamecocks bench, the ball deflected off a Carolina player.
South Carolina Coach Eddie Fogler reached under his seat for the ball, then wound up and flung it to the floor, prompting a technical foul.
Smiling slyly, Fogler declined to say why he bounced the ball at least 15 foot off the floor. "Call me tomorrow," he said. "Let me think about that."
UK forward Scott Padgett's speculation rang true. "End of a long night for him," he said. "He was just letting off frustration."
Besides avenging its two defeats to South Carolina last season, including one on Senior Day, Kentucky solidified its hold on something else last season's team could not achieve: first place in the SEC Eastern Division. The Cats improved to 4-0 in the SEC, two games ahead of Carolina, and 15-2 overall.
South Carolina fell to 10-3 overall and 2-2 in the league.
Aroused and ready from the start, the Cats bore no resemblance to their frequently slow-starting alter egos. UK hit its first seven shots and led by as many as 15 points.
Kentucky's seven first-half three-pointers surpassed the team total in 12 of its 16 games this season. None of UK's first six shots came from the paint. All went in.
Allen Edwards, 4-for-19 from three-point range the past three games, hit a trey. So did Wayne Turner, who had shot 1-for-8 from behind the line in the past three games.
Then Sheppard pulled up on a fast break and nailed a third straight trey. "When a guy like Sheppard pulls up on the break and hits a three, you know things are going your way," Edwards said.
Edwards finished with a career-high 12 assists, an achievement he attributed to a sore back. "My back's been bothering me the last two days and I wasn't sure how much I'd play," he said as he popped a muscle relaxer. "I tried to observe a lot more. That's why I wasn't as aggressive as far as looking for my shot. I was looking for guys on the perimeter."
Kentucky's lead grew to 17-5 before a technical foul against Sheppard swung the momentum to South Carolina.
Sheppard got the technical when he objected to being whistled for a foul while trying to deny an inbounds pass to South Carolina guard BJ McKie. McKie appeared to hook a hand around Sheppard's waist and force the UK guard to fall on top of him. When Sheppard made a hooking motion to referee Phil Robinson (a substitute for John Clougherty), he got hit with the technical.
"I didn't say anything nasty," a visibly embarrassed Sheppard said. "But I got in his face. I deserved the technical."
McKie's two technical free throws started an 11-0 South Carolina run.
The lead was 23-21 when Kentucky shifted to a 1-2-2 zone mid-way through the first half. South Carolina made only four baskets the final 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, Kentucky kept getting solid shooting from unusual sources. Heshimu Evans, one of the heroes in the Cats' victory at Mississippi State Saturday, made back-to-back three-point shots. The second gave UK its largest lead of the first half, 38-23. It also marked the first time he'd made two treys in a game for UK. His three three-point attempts marked a season high.
Nothing early in the second half suggested trouble for Kentucky.
Perhaps trying make up for time lost to the technical, Sheppard came out firing. He scored UK's first seven points of the second half. His three-pointer with 19:18 left enabled the Cats to equal their season-high of eight treys.
"Gawd," Fogler said when asked about UK's torrid shooting. "I don't know. I've seen a lot of game tape. That's the best they've shot this year."