Friday, March 12, 1999

'This time is Kentucky time'

Wildcats focused for another run

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NEW ORLEANS — This isn't a beginning. Kentucky will tell you its season began a week ago, so tonight's game is merely a continuation of confidence.

UK (3) vs. NEW MEXICO ST. (14)
  • When: 10:15 p.m.
  • Where: Louisiana Superdome (24,500), New Orleans
  • TV: Channel 12
  • Radio: WKRC-AM (1530), WNKR-FM (106.5)
  • Records: UK 25-8, New Mexico State (23-9)
  Probable starters:

  • 13: Lou Henson's rank among winningest coaches in history
  • 12: Years since UK lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament
  0: Current Aggies who have played in the NCAA Tournament
  8: Current Wildcats who have won an NCAA title
        “We sat down after the Tennessee loss (to close the regular season) and watched films, and decided we weren't that far away from being a good team,” senior forward Scott Padgett said. “We set a goal to go 9-0. We're 3-0 now.”

        The eighth-ranked Wildcats (25-8) looked bulletproof in three Southeastern Conference Tournament victories last weekend, beating two ranked teams — Auburn and Arkansas — by 14 and 13 points, respectively.

        When it tips off NCAA Tournament play today at the Superdome with a 10:20 p.m. game against unranked New Mexico State (23-9), UK can take another step toward its singular goal:

        “We want to repeat in St. Pete,” senior Heshimu Evans said.

        Though UK is just the third seed in a loaded Midwest Region — its lowest seeding since drawing the same spot in 1994 — many experts feel it can return to the Final Four for a fourth consecutive time. UK junior center Jamaal Magloire guaranteed as much this week.

        Duke, which went to five straight Final Fours from 1988-92, is the only school in the last 23 years to advance that far more than three years in a row. If UK can reach the NCAA finals, it would become the first team in 26 years to make four straight title-game appearances.

        “Come tournament time, there's no team with the same mental toughness,” UK sophomore guard Ryan Hogan said. “This time is Kentucky time.”

        The Superdome was the site of UK's 1993 Final Four appearance, its first in nine years. The Jamal Mashburn-led Wildcats lost in overtime to Michigan in the semifinals.

        Since getting off NCAA probation eight years ago, the Wildcats are 51-6 (.895) in the postseason, combining SEC and NCAA Tournament results. They will tell you postseason prowess commands equal parts aptitude and attitude.

        “It is different from regular-season play,” UK coach Tubby Smith said. “The way we were able to play last weekend shows our experience, heart and grit. Those are the ingredients you need to advance in the tournament.”

        A favorable draw never hurts, either, but UK won't have that here.

        This New Mexico State team isn't a typical 14th seed. The Aggies, who reached the 1970 Final Four, are making their 16th NCAA Tournament appearance. Coach Lou Henson (704-352 in 36 seasons) is the nation's seventh-winningest active coach.

        NMSU, picked to finish fifth in the Big West Conference's Eastern Division, has for the most part been a surprise. It beat Wisconsin in an early-season tournament in Alaska by 14 points but lost to the host school, Division II Alaska-Fairbanks, two nights later. It took Arkansas to the wire before falling, beat New Mexico by 21 points, and last week won the Big West Tournament.

        “I really feel good about this team, simply because not a lot of people gave us a chance at winning,” Henson said. “This season made it worthwhile to return to coaching.”

        This is Henson's second stint at NMSU. After nine years there, he coached 21 seasons at Illinois and retired in 1996, but came out of retirement a year later when previous NMSU coach Neil McCarthy was ousted.

        Henson offered to coach the team for a season for free, though the university actually had to pay him a dollar a month. But after an 18-12 season, he decided to sign a four-year contract.

        The Aggies are small, starting three guards, but their 38-percent three-point shooting makes them dangerous. Freshman guard Eric Channing ranks eighth nationally in three-point shooting at 46.2 percent.

        Six-foot-9 senior forward Charles Gosa leads the Aggies in scoring (14.8 ppg).

        “We're going to have to shut down the three-point shot or anything can happen,” Padgett said.

        The temptation for UK is to look ahead to a possible second-round matchup with Kansas, which would pit the winningest team of the 1990s (Kansas, 285 victories) against the second-winningest (UK, 279).

        In the past eight years, UK is the nation's best with 252 victories; Kansas has 227.

        “It's a one-game situation, so we know we've got a chance,” NMSU junior guard Billy Keys said. “Maybe all our three-pointers will fall. Maybe Kentucky will fall asleep and we'll sneak up on them.”

        These schools have never met. Henson has faced UK four times and never won, losing as coach of Hardin-Simmons in 1965 and at Illinois three straight years from 1982-84. Smith is 1-0 against the Aggies, having beaten them in the 1995 NCAA Tournament when he was coaching at Tulsa.


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