PHILADELPHIA -- Kentucky needed something to gets its second wind, to hold off an oncoming express train in ugly red uniforms. The Wildcats had watched their early 21-point lead evaporate, and Massachusetts was charging hard, trailing by two with 5 1/2 minutes left.
That's when Lennie Wirtz, who was officiating basketball games before John Calipari was born, stepped in and stopped the Minutemen cold. He called a controversial technical against the Massachusetts coach, and Kentucky was able to breathe again.
Starting with the technical on Calipari for apparently leaving the coaching box -- Wirtz was 50 feet away from the UMass bench when he called it -- the Wildcats went on an 11-2 run and broke away for an 87-77 victory in the NCAA East Regional semifinals at The Spectrum.
The victory put Kentucky (29-6) into tomorrow night's regional final against top-ranked, top-seeded Duke, which beat Seton Hall, 81-69, with the winner advancing to next week's Final Four in Minneapolis. The defeat broke a 14-game winning streak and, more importantly, ended a magnificent season for Massachusetts (30-5).
"I think we would have won, but I always think we're going to win," said Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, when asked what effect the technical played. "The reason I think we would have won is that we got 10 points on uncontested layups around that time, and our bench was a little deeper. But definitely, you don't like to see that happen."
Said an exceedingly diplomatic Calipari: "Everything is going to center around that technical. The official has a job to do, and I have a job too. He had a right to call a technical. I'm very embarrassed by it, but give Kentucky credit. They played a very fine basketball game."
Although Wirtz, who according to NCAA tournament rules was unavailable for comment, certainly played his part in the outcome, Kentucky center Jamal Mashburn played a larger part. He tore up the Minutemen's interior defense for 30 points. John Pelphrey added 18.
Mashburn, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound sophomore from The Bronx, hit 11 of15 shots and helped the Wildcats get out to their quick lead. Kentucky hit 14 of its first 19 shots and led, 37-21, on a post-up jumper by Mashburn with 7:32 left in the first half.
But Kentucky cooled off from the outside after hitting its first two three-pointers, and UMass stormed back. On a 70-foot shot by Jim McCoy that found nothing but net, the Minutemen trailed by eight, 50-42, at halftime. Suddenly, it was a game.
There was 5:47 left in the game and Kentucky, which had opened up a 10-point lead earlier, led 70-68 when Wirtz called his technical.
A pair of free throws by Richie Farmer on the technical made it four and Deron Feldhaus scored on a backdoor layup on the ensuing possession. Feldhaus, one of three players to stay at Kentucky when the Wildcats went on NCAA probation three TC years ago, then made a steal and layup for a 76-70 lead. The lead would grow to 81-70, on a three-point play by Sean Woods.
Though Calipari made a point not to blame the loss on the technical, guard Anton Brown wasn't so sure. "We had the momentum. That took a lot of wind out of our sails."