Kentucky's Turner watched, waited Sophomore learns from bench time


INDIANAPOLIS -- One February night two years ago, the Wayne Turner Show had yet another performance at the Beaver Country Day School.

Located just off Route 9 in Newton, Mass., Beaver had become a mecca for college basketball coaches hoping Turner would listen to their sales pitch and follow them to their schools. The opposition this night was the Winchendon School, a Massachusetts power that featured Victor Page (who would eventually go to Georgetown) and Randell Jackson (Florida State). In the jam-packed stands were Providence's Pete Gillen, Boston College's Jim O'Brien and several assistant coaches from major college programs.

With teammates who knew their primary duties were to set screens, clear the lane and chase rebounds, Turner drove wherever he wanted, shot whenever he wanted and passed only when trapped. It paid off handsomely for the 6-foot-2 guard.

His team lost to Winchendon on that night but Turner had his usual 30-plus points. He'd total more than 2,500 points in his high-school career and once scored 62 in a single game. He averaged 36 points in his senior year. Once Rick Pitino started calling, Turner said 'Thanks, but no thanks' to Providence, BC, UConn and the rest of the Big East and headed south to the Blue Grass state.

But as Wayne Turner would soon find out, Beaver Country Day and the University of Kentucky were about as far apart on the basketball spectrum as possible. He arrived at Kentucky with great fanfare and then realized he was in for a lot of learning and a lot of watching.

Turner was looking forward to the learning part. That's why he chose Pitino's program. The watching part was another story.

On a team stacked with four future NBA draft picks and another pretty fair freshman in Ron Mercer, this was a major emotional challenge for someone whose basketball life had been filled with lots of playing time and unending offensive freedom.

"Last year was tough getting used to not playing, knowing you have the potential to help the team," Turner said. "I took it as a learning experience. The guys that were there before me went through the same thing. It was frustrating."

The year was capped by the bittersweet moment of winning a national title game but never stepping on the floor. The championship win over Syracuse would be the only game all season Turner wouldn't get into.

"Every time [Pitino] came down the sideline, I'd look in his face and was hoping he'd put me in. It never happened. I was disappointed but it wasn't a surprise to me," he said.

Flash forward a year, to last night and the national championship game against Arizona in the RCA Dome. If Kentucky expects to win a second straight NCAA title and if Pitino wants to become only the seventh coach to win back-to-back championships, Turner will not only play, he'll play virtually the entire game.

That's what he did in Saturday's 78-69 win over Minnesota. In 39 minutes, the sophomore from Boston's Mission Hill scored eight points, had six assists, made five steals and had just one turnover.

Those are not Beaver Country Day numbers. But for a player who, as Pitino says "treated passing like a virus" when he arrived in Lexington, an effort like that one speaks to the tremendous transformation in Turner's game.

"I'm a little blown away by what Wayne Turner did [Saturday night]," Pitino said yesterday. "He was getting as much heat as he's gotten in his life. The pressure that was being applied to him bringing the ball up was unbelievable. Then he had to turn around and pressure the other team for 94 feet. Then he was the best rebounder, the best defender on our team."

Despite his big high school offensive numbers, Turner's game was based on quickness and penetrating skills. He needed a jump shot, passing skills, defensive knowledge and better free-throw shooting. He worked all last summer on his game but his shooting stroke still was awful.

He started the first game of this season then lost his job to Anthony Epps. After two losses to South Carolina, Pitino began starting Epps and Turner together to increase the speed and quickness in his backcourt. That combination jump-started the team's press and has pushed the Wildcats to the brink of another national title, one that Turner will truly feel a part of.

"I know Wayne and I felt he was upset last year when he didn't get to play [in the finals]," Epps said. "This year, he's playing 39 minutes. When you play 39 minutes, you can't complain any more. Hopefully, his complaining days are over."

Turner has learned his lessons well. He knows that at Kentucky you wait your turn. Then you play for a national championship.

Pub Date: 4/01/97

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