When Kentucky Coach Joe B. Hall lost four of his first five games this season, he had to keep himself from packing his bags. Now, there's talk of going home to Lexington, Ky., for the Final Four.
The Wildcats, getting 23 points from forward Kenny Walker, including the game-winning basket with 21 seconds left, defeated Nevada Las Vegas, 64-61, Saturday in the second round of the NCAA West Regional at Salt Lake City.
The victory, Kentucky's 50th in its history of NCAA tournament play, was especially sweet to Hall, who was carried from the floor by his jubilant players.
"We never doubted for a minute we belonged in this tournament, and the critics who said we shouldn't be gave us some added incentive," Hall said.
The win sent the Wildcats to the third round next Friday at Denver against St. John's, a 68-65 winner over Arkansas.
Two victories in Denver would send Kentucky home as host of the tournament semifinals and final in Lexington, and Hall didn't have to be told.
"There's that chance, and we're going to hold on to it," he said. As for St. John's, he said: "It's going to be a thrill for our players to go up against them."
Kentucky (18-12) tied for third in the Southeastern Conference and owned the poorest record of any NCAA tournament at-large team, one year after having lost in the Final Four to Georgetown. This year, Hall's 1-4 start was the worst start at the school since 1926.
"I had to hold myself from packing my bags and getting out of town," he said.
Leading Saturday, 60-52, with 4:49 remaining, the Wildcats nearly gave the game away when they turned the ball over three straight times while attempting to run time off the clock.
But Walker blocked a shot by UNLV's Richie Adams, then scampered down the floor to make a lay-up with 21 seconds remaining to make it 62-59, Kentucky.
UNLV's Fred Banks then sank a jumper with 14 seconds left, but Kentucky's Richard Madison sank two free throws with nine seconds remaining for the game's final points. UNLV's Anthony Jones missed an uncontested lay-up with one second left.
UNLV (28-4), the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. champion, was forced by Kentucky's zone to play an uncharacteristic half-court game and scored 21 fewer points than their average.
Adams scored 14 points for UNLV, Jones added 13 and Frank James had 10.
St. John's 68, Arkansas 65--Three big defensive plays in the final minute, 59% shooting from the floor and 26 points from Chris Mullin powered the Redmen (29-3) to the victory and a trip to Denver.
"Our foul shooting and our rebounding were enough to get us over the hump, and we made 23 of 39 field goals," St. John's Coach Lou Carnesecca said. "You always look good when your shots go in."
Carnesecca praised the defensive play of center Bill Wennington, who held Arkansas center Joe Kleine in check for most of the game.
"Bill did a heck of a job," Carnesecca said. "We had the big guy (Kleine) in jail all day, and he still got 23 points. We took a calculated risk and did a pretty good job of keeping the ball away from him."
Mullin had repeatedly led St. John's to eight-point margins before the 6-11 Kleine drew Arkansas within 62-61 on a baseline jumper with 1:32 remaining.
Guard Mike Moses hit two free throws to make it 64-61, and Wennington followed by blocking a William Mills shot.
Two free throws by Mullin padded the lead to 66-61 with 36 seconds remaining, and Wennington again thwarted Arkansas on the other end of the court, stealing a high pass intended for Kleine.
Kleine followed with a basket that got the Razorbacks (22-13) within three points, but Moses stole a pass at mid-court, was fouled and made both free throws to help preserve the victory.
"Against most teams in the NCAA field, we probably played well enough to win," Arkansas Coach Eddie Sutton said. "But not today. St. John's defense was very good at keeping the ball away from Joe. We just could never catch up."