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It Has a Ring to It

Mercer Plays Understudy Role for a Champion, Then Stars for a Kentucky Team Seeking to Repeat

March 26, 1997|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Waiting was the toughest part for Ron Mercer, who handled his understudy role about as well as any budding star could.

Watching everyone else get in on the fun wasn't a kick, and when youth and confidence collide, the outcome often isn't pretty. But Mercer avoided any major pitfalls.

Mercer's name is now at the top of the marquee. It didn't take him too long to assume Kentucky's leading role, and he has already decided to jump to a much bigger stage.

But first, Mercer has some unfinished business in the Final Four. The All-American forward leads defending national champion Kentucky against Minnesota in the semifinals Saturday at Indianapolis.

Mercer will depart for the NBA after the season, and he would like one more championship ring for the road.

"This is Ron's time right now," Wildcat guard Anthony Epps said. "There was a changing of the guard from last season's team, and Ron is the man now. Everyone knew this would happen eventually. It happened sooner than some people probably expected--but not sooner than I did."

Mercer is the Wildcats' main man in every way. The sophomore, with a jump shot as smooth as his poker-player demeanor, has led Kentucky through a series of storms big and small in defense of its sixth national title.

Season-ending injuries to star swingman Derek Anderson and forward Allen Edwards robbed the up-tempo Wildcats of much-needed depth.

Three of Kentucky's remaining eight players are new to the rotation and have made the expected mistakes while learning on the job. And Mercer has played, despite a sore back for much of the season.

He has been Coach Rick Pitino's rock every step of the way. Kentucky's West Regional final victory over Utah provides a good example why.

Utah rallied to tie the score, 43-43, with 9:39 to play. Pitino called a timeout and turned to Mercer.

"I needed Ron to play like the great player he is," Pitino said. "I told Ron, 'Baby, we can't win this one without you,' and he took over the game."

Pitino called consecutive plays for Mercer, who made successive jump shots over Utah guard Ben Caton. That triggered a 9-2 run and put Kentucky ahead, 52-45, with 7:20 to go. Good night, Utah.

Mercer scored a game-high 21 points and was named the regional's outstanding player.

"He's incredibly quick for a guy of his size," Caton said. "He's pretty difficult to guard, but I guess everyone could see that."

Mercer, 6 feet 7 and 210 pounds, leads Kentucky in scoring, averaging 18.2 points.

He has taken personal responsibility for Kentucky's title defense. Mercer refuses to let the Wildcats use their lack of depth as an excuse to lose.

"When Derek went down and then Allen went down, sure it hurt us a lot," Mercer said. "But we can't think about that now.

"We still have 'Kentucky' on our jerseys, and that means we're going to play hard and not back down to anyone. This is our challenge right now: to win the whole thing again."

During last season's championship run, Mercer was only part of the cast. He arrived in Lexington, Ky., from Nashville with a big-time reputation and the skills to match. Several publications rated him as the nation's top recruit.

But he was the new kid on an abundantly talented team. The Wildcats featured four future NBA draft choices, including three first-round picks.

Pitino laid out the situation to Mercer early in the recruiting process. Kentucky was Mercer's choice all the way, but his ego got a little bruised while he sat on the bench.

He played in all 36 of Kentucky's games and averaged eight points, but he never started or played more than 30 minutes. He struggled to accept his role early last season until former teammate Tony Delk gave him a pep talk.

"Tony told me to just be patient and my time would come," Mercer said of Delk, now a member of the Charlotte Hornets. "I look back now and I remember the things Tony did and the things Tony told me, and I realize how much I miss all those guys.

"I've used the things all the guys used to tell me to improve my own game and become a better leader."

In last season's title game, Mercer provided a glimpse of the future. He scored 20 points in only 24 minutes as Kentucky defeated Syracuse, 76-67, at the Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, N.J.

His coming-out party stirred speculation about when Mercer would bolt Kentucky for the NBA.

The questions came with increasing frequency this season, so on Feb. 24 Mercer announced he was leaving. Pitino predicts Mercer, 20, will be among the top four picks in the NBA draft.

"After almost every game, [reporters] kept asking me, 'Are you going to go or stay?' " Mercer said. "It got kind of tiring, so I just decided to get it out of the way. I wanted to be focused in the tournament."

He has been. And Kentucky is only two victories away from sending Mercer off with a sparkling gift.

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