Date story was published: Wednesday, November 28, 1984
No one dared suggest that experience is overrated, but youth won out last night at Rupp Arena.
Kentucky's fuzzy-faced Wildcats spotted a veteran Toledo team a second-half lead, then came roaring back to win 63-54 in the season opener for both teams.
Until a 16-2 scoring spurt, which put the new-look Wildcats in the driver's seat, Kentucky seemed to be in danger of losing a home opener for the first time since 1972-73.
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It was during that spurt that UK took on a familiar look, that of a running and rebounding club intent on victory.
After appearing so poised, Toledo suddenly didn't have a chance.
"We're disappointed," said Toledo coach Bob Nichols. "We expected to win."
Such talk would have been deemed too bold in other years. But not in 1984-85.
UK certainly showed its youth in the first half, shooting only 32.4 percent from the field and being outrebounded by seven (25-18).
Much to the delight of a less-than-capacity crowd that was generously estimated at 23,129, the second half was a different story.
The Wildcats switched from a man-to-man defense and went zone (2-3 and 1-2-2) after intermission. The defensive ploy limited Toledo's motion offense to a perimeter jumper (most times one perimeter jumper).
Offensively, UK's kiddie corps rediscovered Kenny Walker and put on its running shoes in the second half.
All those factors pushed Toledo into a hole that the Rockets, for all their blessed experience, could not climb out of.
"The main difference was defense," UK coach Joe Hall said. "We were making things happen."
UK's 16-2 spurt began after Toledo had taken its largest second-half lead, 38-33.
While Toledo was making only one of its next six long-range jumpers, the Cats exploded for 16 of the next 18 points.
James Blackmon, who qualifies as a graybeard on this team because he's a sophomore, sparked the rally. The guard from Marion, Ind., scored six of his 17 points during the run.
Blackmon, who didn't see action in any of Kentucky's pre-season games (four intra-squad scrimmages and the exhibition against the Chinese), also played a big part in protecting UK's lead.
The 16-2 spurt put UK up 49-40. The Cats were nursing a 54-46 lead when UK called time with 2:52 remaining.
When the Wildcats returned to the floor, they were in the "One-and-Four" offense, the same alignment that preserved UK victories over Indiana and Illinois a year ago.
As in those games, Blackmon beat his man one-on-one. Blackmon scored three baskets down the stretch.
"It's a great offense," Blackmon said. "It gives a guard a chance to show what he's got."
Blackmon also showed that the knee injury that sidelined him for much of the pre-season might have healed.
Blackmon was sidelined when a calcium deposit burst on his right kneecap. Blackmon said the knee was still tender.
"I'd like to see what would have happened without the bad spell," Nichols said. The Toledo coach also said his star, forward Ken Epperson, was hampered by bone spurs on the foot. Epperson was held to only seven points and seven rebounds.
Still, Nichols conceded that UK deserved credit.
''They have strong possibilities," the Rockets' boss said. "We were experienced and ahead, and they came back. There are a lot of possibilities there."
Toledo, which started four seniors against Kentucky, trailed in the early going of the first half. But the Rockets' experience seemed a big factor in Toledo's 26-24 halftime lead.
Epperson, one of the Rocket seniors, pushed Toledo into the lead. The 6-8 native of Louisville was caught hanging in the air, but made a quick pass to teammate Barry Sonnenberg under the basket. Sonnenberg's layup put Toledo ahead 18-17 with 5:01 remaining in the first half.
Epperson, an All-Mid-American Conference selection last season, was held relatively quiet by UK's Bret Bearup. Epperson had only five points at intermission. Three of those points, however, came on the next trip downcourt following Sonnenberg's layup. Epperson's driving shot and three-point play extended Toledo's lead to 21-17.
Epperson rarely showed that kind of play, though, and he didn't blame the bone spurs.
"Bearup just did a great job guarding me," Epperson said. "He's strong and it took me all day to get around him."
The Rockets increased the advantage to as much as six (23-17) when Jay Gast, another Kentucky native, hit a jumper with 3:09 remaining. Gast, who hails from Maysville, finished the half with eight points.
But in the second half, especially when UK broke the game open, the Toledo jumpers would not fall.
"Their arms were unbelievable," Gast said of UK's zone defenders. "Walker and (Cedric) Jenkins are big boys. When they spread their arms, it made it tough."
Kentucky, meanwhile, showed all the raggedness that might be expected from a team that lost four starters to graduation and will have to depend on five freshmen to fill the void.
It didn't help matters that Winston Bennett wasn't available. The 6-8 sophomore forward dressed for the game, but sat on the bench.
UK took the lead early. Roger Harden, who finished the half with nine points, was hitting jumpers from the perimeter.
UK's other starting guard, Paul Andrews, hit a jumper to put the Wildcats up 8-2, Kentucky's largest first-half lead.
Those jump shots were the exception, not the rule for Kentucky. The Cats made only 32.4 percent of their first-half shots and were outrebounded by Toledo 25-18.
Among the signs of inexperience for UK included the freshmen's 0-for-10 shooting in the first half. Robert Lock, who started at center, fired an air ball on a post-up shot in the game's opening seconds.
Later, Cedric Jenkins, yet another UK rookie, missed everything on the first of a one-and-one free throw.
"The freshmen had freshmen jitters," Hall said. "They're capable of playing better. We'll certainly need them."
The crowd got to roar only once in the first half. Blackmon fed Walker for a fast-break slam.
On the very next trip downcourt, Harden threw a fast-break pass behind Blackmon and out of bounds.
From all indications last night, those two plays may best describe the ups and downs Kentucky can expect this season.
Asked if the problems of the first half were corrected at halftime, Hall replied:
"That's nothing you can solve at halftime. It will take half a season."