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COLLEGE BASKETBALL NCAA TOURNAMENT

Rest Easy, Kentucky; It's Another Rout

West Regional: Mercer and Mills score 20 points apiece as Wildcats never threatened in 83-68 victory over St. Joseph's.

March 21, 1997|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN JOSE — Kentuckians, spoiled though they may be, expect certain things from the Wildcat basketball team.

High on their list is that the Wildcats will annually advance through the NCAA tournament, taking apart college basketball's have-nots with ease along the way. It's not exactly the easiest standard to live up to, but such is life in the Bluegrass State.

For another season, it looks like Kentucky will satisfy its hoops-crazed fans.

The Wildcats got the job done again Thursday night, defeating St. Joseph's, 83-68, in a West Regional semifinal game before 18,543 at the San Jose Arena.

All-American forward Ron Mercer and reserve guard Cameron Mills each scored 19 points as the defending national champions jumped ahead of St. Joseph's early and rode their first-half lead to the finish. Kentucky was never really challenged or pushed in winning its ninth consecutive tournament game.

"We played spectacular in the first half," Kentucky Coach Rick Pitino said. "Our goal was to shoot over 50% and try to limit them to 40%."

For the most part, mission accomplished.

St. Joseph's shot 37.5% in the first half and 43.9% overall. Kentucky was the model of consistency again, shooting 55.6% in the first half, 56% in the second and 55.8% overall.

Kentucky only forced 17 turnovers with its press, which isn't much by its standards. But St. Joseph's never got in a solid offensive flow.

St. Joseph's point guard Rashid Bey led his team with 26 points.

Mercer, saying he felt the best he has in the tournament, scored 13 points in the first half as Kentucky served notice.

"I just tried to go out and mix it up a little bit," Mercer said. "I tried to help out my teammates."

So now the Wildcats get down to serious business. Top-seeded Kentucky (33-4) will play second-seeded Utah, a winner over Stanford in the other semifinal Thursday, for the West Regional championship Saturday.

This is just the way the brackets were drawn up. The Kentucky-Utah game is a rematch of last season's Midwest Regional semifinal. Kentucky won that one, 101-70, on the way to its sixth national title.

"They could give us problems at certain positions and especially on the interior," Pitino said of Utah. "We're going to have to play an extraordinary game to beat Utah. I know how good they are."

Such was not the case against fourth-seeded St. Joseph's (26-7). Kentucky led by as many as 16 points in the first half.

It didn't take long for St. Joseph's Coach Phil Martelli to figure out his team was in trouble. Big trouble.

"The better team won the game--that was pretty easy to see," Martelli said. "The fact of the matter is that we just weren't good enough to beat them. They played like champions tonight and I hope they win it all."

Kentucky is down to an eight-ma rotation because of season-ending injuries to star swingman Derek Anderson and forward Allen Edwards. But lack of depth isn't enough to stop the Wildcats, Pitino said.

"Frankly, I have a lot of confidence in them," Pitino said. "They keep answering the bell."

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