Date story published: Sunday, March 8, 1998
ATLANTA - For the second time in a week, backup center Jamaal Magloire predicted Kentucky will win the national championship.
"Oh yeah," he said, matter-of-factly. "We're going to win the national championship. No doubt in my mind."
After Kentucky's first-half performance yesterday, Magloire's predictions sounded more wise prophecy and less youthful impertinence.
The Cats simply demolished No. 16 Arkansas in the first half en route to a 99-74 victory in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals. Arkansas, which vowed to give Kentucky its signature "40 minutes of hell" defensive pressure, instead got buried under 20 minutes of heavenly UK offense.
"In the first half, we got on a roll and it felt like we could do no wrong," forward Scott Padgett said. "It was like everything that happened was something positive for us."
Kentucky scored on eight of its first nine possessions, made 19 of its first 26 shots and surpassed in the first 18 minutes its three-point basket total in 22 games. When the nets cooled, UK had built a 29-point lead in the first 16 minutes and Nolan Richardson was headed for the third-most lopsided loss in his 13 seasons at Arkansas.
"If they shoot the ball like they did today, it would have been a 15-point game against anybody," Richardson said. "And I mean anybody. Duke. North Carolina. Kansas."
Shooting guard Jeff Sheppard led the outburst. He scored 15 of his team-high 17 points in the first 15 minutes. "'Shep' was on fire and it just got contagious," point guard Wayne Turner said of UK's 62.9 percent first-half shooting. "It moved over to Cameron (Mills). Then it moved over to Scott (Padgett)."
By game's end, every UK player in attendance scored. Allen Edwards was not at the game. He attended his mother's funeral in Holly Hills, S.C.
Sheppard did not get a second chance to get on fire. He sprained his left ankle early in the second half and will miss today's finals. He's expected to be at full strength for next week's start of the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky (28-4) jumped on Arkansas immediately. After missing their first shot - which center Nazr Mohammed rebounded and banked home - the Cats made eight straight shots. That built an 18-7 lead inside the first five minutes.
By the time the margin grew to 24-7, Kentucky had as many dunks (three) as Arkansas had baskets (three).
"At times it was demoralizing," said Pat Bradley, who needed 14 shots to lead Arkansas with a hard-earned 16 points. "Where we'd work so hard and they hit the shots they did."
And still Kentucky, which couldn't sustain its excellence for long during the regular season, kept Arkansas receding farther and farther into its rear-view mirror.
"Probably our best half all year," said Mills, who had three of his four threes in the half. "And I can honestly say that's the best game of the year."
Mohammed made the game's most memorable play. Looking like a poor man's Meadowlark Lemon, he took a pass in the low post and pivoted toward the baseline as if intent on putting up a hook shot.
Instead, Mohammed backhanded a pass to a cutting Padgett before making the pivot. Padgett laid in the ball.
No, Mohammed said, UK's 41-15 lead did not make him feel free to attempt such a fancy pass. "Sometimes I do some stupid things," he said with a smile. "I play off instinct."
"That's the only way he knows how to pass," Padgett teased. To which UK Coach Tubby Smith added, "Yeah, that's right. That's the only way he knows how to pass. That is the only way he can complete a pass. ...But believe me, it's not something we teach."
Actually, there was a method to Kentucky's first-half offense. Except for transition baskets, Smith took pains to make sure the players followed a patterned offense.
"I felt they needed to know where they needed to be," the UK coach said. "We didn't bring the ball as close to the basket because we wanted them to spread their defense so they'd have to play the whole court."
By contrast, Arkansas (23-8) shot 28.6 percent in the first half and never mounted its trapping, pressing defense. "I thought Kentucky played extremely well," Richardson said. "This is the greatest exhibition of playing basketball in the SEC I've ever seen.
"It was just a great performance by all the players. They shot the ball extremely well. They blended shots inside and outside extremely well. They played every facet of the game extremely well.
"If they shoot that way throughout the tournament - I mean the next one - it will be very difficult to beat a team like that."