Date story published: Monday, March 9, 1998
ATLANTA - Kentucky, the team that supposedly couldn't separate itself from the pack, completed the task of turning this weekend's Southeastern Conference Tournament into a parody of the league's much-discussed parity this season.
That UK decisively beat South Carolina, the league's next highest-ranked team, 86-56 yesterday gave distinction to another SEC Tournament championship, the school's second straight, sixth in seven years, ninth in 15 years and 21st overall.
Remember it as the championship Kentucky won with its leading scorer tied behind its back, the championship that cemented this team's identity as the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
Despite Jeff Sheppard sitting out because of a sprained ankle, Kentucky never trailed. Despite having to play less than 24 hours after an awesome performance against Arkansas, UK zipped to a 10-point lead in the first seven minutes.
After a lull (this team is human, as was discussed so often throughout the season), the Cats crunched South Carolina in the second half. UK led by double digits the final 16 minutes. As if to punctuate its superiority, Kentucky scored the game's final 15 points to hand the Gamecocks their most lopsided defeat in at least two seasons.
Without Kentucky, it was the most competitive SEC Tournament ever. For the first time, the first eight games were decided by 11 points or less. But the Cats won three games by an average margin of 22 points.
"We got tired of hearing parity," forward Scott Padgett said. "To us we feel this is our conference and our tournament."
Kentucky (29-4) ruled both ends of the floor against South Carolina.
Defensively, the Cats smothered South Carolina's all-league guards, BJ McKie and Melvin Watson. The same twosome that scored 64 points in a semifinal victory over Ole Miss managed just 20 against UK. McKie, who had 37 points against Ole Miss, did not crack double digits against the Cats until the 6:08 mark of the second half. By then, UK led by 21.
"We knew if we shut them down, we'd beat them," UK guard Cameron Mills said. "What they did was not anything like it was (against Ole Miss)."
To stop the South Carolina guards' patented penetration, UK did not rely as heavily on a zone defense as expected. The Cats played a good bit of man-to-man. But each defense had a similar objective.
"A lot of help," Mills said. "I think Ole Miss found out it's very difficult to contain them one on one. You've just got to hope your teammates are going to be there to contain."
McKie and Watson repeatedly found help blocking their path to the basket, a reason the two shot only 7-for-22.
"With their 'four' and 'five' men, they jammed the center (of the lane)," Watson said. "They are so solid and tough defensively. And they don't gamble. Other teams tend to gamble against us. They don't. They're just so solid defensively."
South Carolina, 23-7 and a three-time loser to Kentucky, became the seventh straight UK opponent to shoot 38.5 percent or less. The Gamecocks shot 36.8 percent.
Perhaps as impressive, Kentucky defended the Gamecocks, intent on driving to the basket, without fouling. South Carolina had shot 87 free throws in its first two tournament games. The Gamecocks shot only 16 against the Cats.
Kentucky excelled offensively as well. The Cats repeatedly found the open man, which contributed to 13 three-point baskets (one short of a season high). Padgett equaled a season high with three three-pointers.
"That Kentucky team that played here this weekend can play with anybody in the country," South Carolina Coach Eddie Fogler said. "When they're shooting like that, they will be awfully hard for anyone to beat."
Kentucky point guard Wayne Turner led the way at both ends. He contained Watson defensively. He also scored a team-high 18 points, his biggest scoring game since getting 20 Jan. 6 at Georgia, while directing UK's efficient offense.
For all that, a media panel voted Turner the tournament's most valuable player.
"Turner was terrific," Fogler said. "His shooting has improved dramatically, and that helps Kentucky's offensive tremendously.
"If you look at the stats, you should zone Kentucky. But with Turner shooting well and (Heshimu) Evans shooting great... People used to not play Turner. It was almost five on four. But now he is a factor. He's really huge for them."