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Original Issue

Solution To A Thorny Problem

Alabama came out of Kentucky's "brier-patch" with the SEC crown

All right. All right. So the LSU coach said the site was a "disgrace to integrity" and insisted a more neutral court would be "Leningrad Stadium." So the Mississippi coach cried about the officiating; not complained, mind you, but cried—broke down and wept. So Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. isn't the fairest place on earth to play basketball if you don't have KENTUCKY emblazoned across your uniform. Picky, picky. If you were running that venerable football wonderland known as the SEC and you wanted to showcase your burgeoning, now-20th-century basketball programs, where would you locate a 10-team, four-day spectacular of a postseason conference tournament? On Golden Pond? At Auburn?

Besides, no one could maintain that the auslanders in the SEC got themselves totally whupped in Rupp after Alabama stunned the host Wildcats 48-46 in the tournament finale last Saturday night. Not only did the Crimson Tide fight the hardest, dig the deepest and play the best in winning the title and, with it, an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs, but 'Bama also showed everyone exactly how to sneak into a 'Cat's lair and overcome a 30-game home winning streak. Rolllll, Tide? No. Ebb, Tide.

Specifically, what quick, resourceful, voracious-rebounding Alabama did was to slow its 78-points-per-game attack to eliminate the crowd from the fray; horse the backboards in horse country, gobbling up everything it didn't outright reject (the Tide had a 26-18 rebound margin and five blocked shots); and ultimately give the ball to a wonderfully creative freshman guard named Ennis Whatley, so he could account for 27 points and take charge in the final seconds.

A week earlier 'Bama had pitifully rolled over in a season-ending 80-63 loss to lowly Vanderbilt and thus denied itself a share of the SEC regular-season championship with Kentucky and Tennessee. But in the tournament the Tide regained momentum with an impressive 85-74 romp over Georgia and then outsteadied the normally mistake-free Tennessee machine 56-50. After the Wildcats escaped the overexuberant clutches of Ole Miss 62-58—ole in this case referring to the olfactories through which the Rebels, having been whistled for 38 fouls, smelled a home-cooked rat—here came Alabama face-to-face with the veteran Kentucky team that had already beaten the Tide twice by a combined 27 points and were at home in Lexington. At Rupp. With those KENTUCKY WILDCATS block letters shining from the Kentucky floor and 21,981 Kentuckians (mostly) baying at the Kentucky moon. It's just like Brer Rabbit said, "I don't keer what you do wid me, Brer Fox...but don't fling me in dat brier-patch."

On Saturday the part of the briers was played by Kentucky's man-to-man defense, which Whatley destroyed at the beginning of the second half when he bobbed and weaved for seven straight points off the 'Cats' Dirk Minniefield. With Alabama in front 34-27, Kentucky reverted to a zone trap that kept Whatley from penetrating and denied the ball to the Tide's meaty inside pair of Bobby Lee Hurt and Eddie Phillips (who can also hurt).

After Kentucky battled back to lead 40-38 with 11:52 to play, the teams settled into a deliberate style. The championship game's 10th and 11th ties were forged when the Wildcats' hulking center, Mel Turpin, got two dunks off a rebound and a lob pass. The second of Turpin's baskets tied matters at 46-46 with 4:36 left. It was the last time Kentucky would get the ball down low.

Derrick Hord then became Alabama's prime victim. Hord, who had had a miserable time shooting—13 of 36 for the tournament—suddenly had a worse time holding on to the ball. At 3:30 Whatley stripped him. Then, after Hurt made a turnover and Kentucky got the ball back, Hord was tied up by the Tide's defensive bastion, Mike Davis, at :33. Under the alternate possession rule Kentucky still controlled, but nine seconds later Davis and Whatley both swarmed Hord, pressuring him into a traveling violation.

Now Alabama had the basketball and the tournament right where it wanted both all along: in the hands of Whatley, one-on-one, foul line extended. "Git the damn thang airborne quick," Tide Coach Wimp (yes, Wimp) Sanderson had drawled in the time-out huddle after Hord's travel, knowing that Kentucky, which had fouls to give, would attempt to nail Whatley before the shot. But Whatley, who already had 11 points and eight assists, buzzed around the 'Cat defenders so fast they never laid a glove on him.

Whatley's 12-foot banked jumper was released with seven seconds left but the ball glanced off the front rim and bounded up for grabs. Quick as you can say Enimo—a diminutive of Ennis, not Meeny-Miney-Mo's partner—Whatley was in the lane to catch the rebound and fire again. Was this attempt really that short, really an air ball? Uh-huh. But it was also a Phillips ball: Phillips, the 6'7" senior forward who had christened Whatley a "franchise" when Whatley was in grade school back in Birmingham and had waited for him in Tuscaloosa; Phillips, who had pounded the boards so viciously he injured his hand slapping the glass; Phillips, who so far had 14 baskets and 23 rebounds in the tournament. Now Phillips almost nonchalantly added one more of each as he skied, caught Whatley's shot in midair, came back down and flipped the ball into the hole.

It was an excruciating way for Kentucky to lose a championship, but by nature postseason conference tournaments are like that—harsh worlds unto themselves, noisy islands in the NCAA stream of unconsciousness. Floating out there in limbo between the end of the regular schedule and the beginning of the real tournament, they can define a team's season and crush its soul at the same time. But it's a green limbo. The ACC started this excitement/mess, and now so much money is to be pocketed from these meaningless exhibitions that all but five major conferences have copied the gimmick in one form or another.

Having moved to the round-ball-crazed bluegrass after three years of disappointing crowds in Birmingham, last week's SEC bash drew some 90,000 people to five sessions and poured approximately $1 million into league coffers. Yet even Coach Joe Hall of Kentucky, a major beneficiary of this switching-for-sawbucks, was ambivalent. "The economic results will be good," said Hall, "but on the court this tournament is dangerous, a no-win situation. If you come out on top, you expend all your emotions and you're drained for the NCAA. If you lose, the confidence is gone and it's a long wait for the next game. Then there are injuries...."

Three years ago Kentucky's Dwight (the Blur) Anderson broke his wrist in the SEC tournament, but last week all the 'Cats came through unscratched save for the forlorn figure of Sam Bowie. Though draped over a chair in street clothes down at the end of the Wildcat bench, he still somehow hovered over the proceedings like a friendly shroud.

SEC people wax lyrical about how balanced and competitive their league has become. However, this year's mass parity was dictated by Bowie and his mystery injury, a stress fracture of the left tibia. With Bowie healthy, Kentucky probably would have walked away with the league title. Without him, chaos. There was no known cause or time of the injury, but as the season wore on Bowie's rehabilitation proved fruitless. It became clear that the man who led Kentucky to a 51-12 record in his two seasons wouldn't play in his third—and the SEC grew thoroughly goofy.

There was A) Alabama, coached by the marvelously quotable Sanderson, who kept saying things like "Mama was still under a sedative when she named me [Winfrey], but I didn't jest ride into town on no turnip truck." The Tide trucked into the conference season with nine straight victories before being beaten by B) Tennessee, whose sleek forward, Dale Ellis, soon turned into the most feared player in the conference as he shot the Vols to a 9-0 SEC record before they were beaten by, yes, Alabama. After the Tide rose to No. 9 in the SI poll, it lost three games in a row, one to C) LSU, which parlayed a rare combination of sorry shooting and sorrier rebounding into a tie for first place before having its spirits shattered when the malfunction of the scorer's clock cost a victory in Baton Rouge. Got that? If it was human—some said inhumane—error that caused the Tigers' downfall, it was canine distress that plummeted D) Georgia to the depths of a five-game SEC losing streak before the 'Dogs rallied on the flying shoulders of the irrepressible dunking monster, Dominique Wilkins. Georgia's cross to bear was that its free-lance Sky Dawgs were equipped with air heads.

In the midst of all this activity, a Bowie-less Kentucky struggled, losing to both E) Mississippi and F) Mississippi State for the first time since before what...Reconstruction? In addition, those two schools—previously wed solely to autumn-god football—symbolized the league's new commitment to the hardwood. Four years ago Ole Miss hired Bob Weltlich, a Bobby Knight protégé, and last March the Rebs won the tournament. This season State brought in John Wooden's old punching bag at USC, Bob Boyd. Mississippi, 11-7 in SEC play, lost only three non-conference games—to Fresno State, Memphis State and the University of Alabama-Birmingham, all champions in their own leagues—while Mississippi State, 4-14 in the SEC, actually defeated three conference winners, Memphis State, Tennessee-Chattanooga and Kentucky.

The Wildcats were also dumped by Auburn (another clock malfunction) and humiliated by LSU—33 turnovers, behind by 35 points before losing 94-78—on the final day of the season. Naturally Tennessee, with a chance to win the title outright, lost. And Alabama, with a chance to tie, also lost. "I ain't gonna lie," Sanderson says. "I ain't gonna tell you we didn't choke our little heinies off."

The saving grace of the tournament's opening night, in which two interminable games were both tied 36-36 at the end of regulation—can't anybody here kick a simple extra point?—was Auburn's 6'6", 260-pound freshman center, Charles Barkley, who appeared to have wandered in from a record-breaking tour of the local fast-food franchises. For obvious reasons Barkley wears the tail of his uniform top out, but this touch hardly conceals his considerable stern, which, coupled with his cherubic countenance, makes him a dead ringer for The Love Boat itself. Alas, Barkley, a starch gourmet and the league's leading rebounder, is already known by the more mundane Leaning Tower of Pizza.

When he debuted in Rupp Arena in January and fans chanted "fat boy, fat boy," Barkley merely blew kisses and waggled a little finger at them and stacked 25 points and 17 rebounds upon Turpin's bewildered head. Last week the 6'11", 240-pound Turpin was forewarned; he held the pudgy prodigy to two baskets as Kentucky raced to a 20-point half-time lead on the way to defeating Auburn 89-66.

Barkley's reception in Lexington was a valentine compared to that accorded LSU Coach Dale Brown. Brown not only beats the Wildcats a whole lot, but he also rubs it in their faces. In Mississippi's 59-52 victory over LSU, therefore, Brown's every gesture was heckled while the Rebels—especially 6'4" Carlos Clark, the best NCAA player nobody has ever heard of—were cheered. Afterward Brown lashed out at the league for its choice of a tournament site.

"A tremendous injustice.... We were sold down the river.... We want neutrality and money," the coach said. "Take the tournament to Leningrad Stadium. It seats 102,000. In Lexington some of the people don't come to enjoy the games. They come to be——."

This characteristic performance appeared to have clinched another of basketball's MORRY trophies (most outrageous rant-rave of the year) for Brown until Mississippi's Weltlich miraculously topped it.

What looked like another Kentucky rout in the semifinals—Turpin scoring 18 points, the 'Cats leading by 18 (44-26) with 12:22 left—resulted in a dramatic game when Ole Miss outscored Kentucky 23-7 over the next nine minutes to twice come within two points. The renowned Kentucky poise was lying in a pool of Rebel sweat as the Ole Miss fullcourt press repeatedly prevented the hosts from reaching midcourt. But Mississippi was piling up fouls. Three, four, five Rebs would foul out. Kentucky would shoot 42 free throws—and miss 18, six of them one-and-ones. When Clark was called for a charge on his last jump shot at 1:04, with Kentucky leading 56-52, Carlos was adios and so were the Rebels.

"It's a damn shame at this level we can't have better officials," Weltlich began, calmly. He spoke louder. "Absolutely unbelievable...the defending tournament champions and we never got a chance to win." And with more emotion: "Our kids are crying their eyes out." His voice rose and cracked. "It's a damn tragedy." Weltlich's shoulders heaved and he departed the three-minute press conference, weeping. "Jesus Christ," he wailed to his stunned audience, "what do you have to do?"

Well, as Alabama proved the next night, it is helpful not to get far behind. As Whatley proved, it is necessary to control the ball in order to control your destiny. And as Phillips proved, it is vital to be in the right place at the right time. "This crowd, the 20,000 in the place or whatever, they can mess with you," Phillips said. "But, you know, uh...the crowd don't ever get to play."



Whatley's shooting and passing accounted for 27 of 48 points in the Tide's title win.



Bowing to 'Bama desolated the Wildcats, who previously had beaten the Tide twice.



Clark led a semifinal comeback that came up short.



Turpin's 24 points paced Kentucky in the semis.



Weltlich felt that the officiating was a crying shame.