On Feb. 24, Kentucky Guard Rex Chapman crashed to the Rupp Arena floor and lay still for some five minutes in front of the Wildcats' prayerful fans. The diagnosis: a cracked small bone in the lower back, which could sideline him for three weeks. On Sunday at the Assembly Center in Baton Rouge, 18 days after the fall, Chapman stood at the free throw line with two shots to ice a victory over Georgia and seal the SEC tournament championship.
The game wound up a pulsating four days of play, during which 10 teams had a chance to, as they say down South, clean each other's plow. By the end, LSU, the host school, knew that a Georgia win over Kentucky would likely cost the Tigers a berth in the NCAAs. As Chapman toed the line, LSU coach Dale Brown ceased high-fiving Kentucky fans and clenched his hands in prayer. Chapman swished both shots to secure a 62-57 win. That gave him 23 points for the game and helped earn him tournament MVP honors. Thanks to a recovered Rex, LSU (along with Florida, Vanderbilt and Auburn) is NCAA-bound. Georgia isn't.
In becoming the third SEC team to win both the regular-season and the tournament crowns, the Cats defeated a pack of very hungry Dawgs. At halftime, after Georgia had outscored (32 to 27), outhustled (seven offensive rebounds to four) and outdefensed (forcing 10 turnovers to four) Kentucky, Wildcat coach Eddie Sutton waxed belligerent. His chastened charges returned after intermission to outrebound Georgia 19-8 and commit only two turnovers.
For Chapman, who led Kentucky with 15 second-half points, the game was the first since his injury in which he didn't wear an elastic corset for support. "Rex has been going through a lot of pain," says his backcourt mate Ed Davender. "But it's like a challenge, and he accepts that. Nothing he does is a surprise to us." Indeed, two days after Chapman injured his back, he was back at practice. He missed only one game.
The injury jarred the 6'4" sophomore as much psychologically as it did physically. While talking with Kentucky football player Donnie Gardner shortly after being hurt, Chapman was approached by a man in a wheelchair, who told him he was "a lucky man, a very lucky man."
"Donnie and I looked at each other," Chapman recalls. "Donnie said, 'You'd better go back to the Lodge [athletic dorm] and say your prayers.' "
Since returning to action, Chapman has been on a remarkable roll. In five games he has made 57.4% of his shots from the floor, including 51.7% from three-point range. His sharp-shooting has muted Sutton's criticism of his shot selection, particularly Rex's affection for the trey. The criticism didn't sit well with Chapman ("If they don't like the way I'm shooting, I'll stop altogether," he said) or with the Kentucky faithful, most of whom see Rex as the boy king of the Bluegrass State. One caller to a Kentucky radio show suggested that Sutton should treat Chapman as Georgia had treated Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker: Give him the ball 35 times a game and get out of the way.
To overcome Georgia, the Cats and Chapman first had to overcome semifinal foe LSU, which had some overcoming of its own to do. The Tigers labored under two black epaulets: one in memory of Pete Maravich, who died on Jan. 5; the other for the shocking death of Don Redden, 24, a star on LSU's '86 Final Four team, who died of heart disease in Baton Rouge earlier in the week. Tiger forward Ricky Blanton, who dates Redden's sister, Roxanna, was a pallbearer at Redden's funeral, which was held 24 hours before LSU faced Vanderbilt on Friday in a second-round game.
Brown, the undisputed motivational champ of Baton Rouge since Jimmy Swaggart's fall from grace, vowed not to turn the Redden tragedy into "an artificial stimulant," though his players' shoulder straps did bear a swatch of the gray T-shirt Redden was wearing when he died. Against Vandy, Blanton, who told Brown before the tip-off he was exhausted, poured in 30 points and played the entire game. Afterward, Blanton and center Jose Vargas led the Tigers into the stands, where they gave the game ball to Redden's parents, Levy and Glenda. "If I ever had to pick a game to win," said Brown, "this was it."
Given LSU's zeal and Kentucky's talent, Saturday's semi figured to be stirring. It was stunning. Over a nine-minute stretch near the finish, the Tigers rallied to tie the game five times. The difference in the 86-80 struggle was Wildcat freshman forward Eric Manuel, who found soft spots in the LSU defense and had 24 points. Midway through the season Manuel was a soft spot himself, 15 pounds overweight and riding the bench. But he went on a diet and took on more of a load, replacing Chapman when he went down. "I just kind of got myself together," says Manuel.