In one final flash, the Wildcats wilt

JOHN EISENBERG

April 04, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

At the sound of the final buzzer, Michigan coach Steve Fisher began sprinting down the sideline toward the Kentucky bench, racing, racing, as if he was worried that someone might reverse the ending if he didn't shake Rick Pitino's hand within seconds of the last dribble.

Pitino saw Fisher coming. The look on Pitino's face was the look of devastation. He was resigned, his pierced eyes suddenly gone hazy, his pointed shoulders suddenly slumped. Behind him, sharing the expression, were his players. Behind them, also sharing the expression, was the legion of Kentucky fans.

How had this happened? That was what they all wanted to know. Pitino. His players. The fans. How had this game gotten away from them? It didn't make sense. They were up four points early in overtime. Still up three with 72 seconds left. Looking good. Looking great. And then, in a matter of seconds, a couple of possessions, it was all gone. Michigan's players were dancing at midcourt, celebrating a win in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament. How had this happened?

"We felt we had a victory," Pitino said moments later, in front of a room of reporters. "We felt we had a victory and we let it get away."

He leaned into the microphone. Tapped the table with right index finger. Searched for the words.

"We're very disappointed," he said. "Extremely disappointed."

They were right there. That's what they'll remember 30 years from now. How they were right there, right on the cusp of a win and a shot at North Carolina in the title game tomorrow night. After being 10 points down midway through the second half. After surviving a Michigan shot to win -- off the rim -- at the end of regulation.

They jumped ahead by four in overtime. Jamal Mashburn followed up a missed shot, then made a free throw after being fouled on a drive. He was taking over. Making the game his. Then he was on defense, trying to stop Juwan Howard on a drive, and the referee was blowing his whistle. Foul. Fifth foul on Mashburn.

"I think with Mashburn we win the game," Pitino said.

He thinks . . .

As it happened, Kentucky did not make another basket in the remaining three minutes. Did not score even a single point for more than two minutes. The lead was down to one when Kentucky's Tony Delk made two free throws with 72 seconds left, pushing the lead back to three. Still looking good. Looking great.

The next time the Wildcats touched the ball, they were behind.

Whaaaat?

Michigan's Ray Jackson drove the lane, got a step on his defender and banked in a layup while being fouled by Mashburn's sub, Gimel Martinez. He missed the free throw, but a Kentucky hand knocked the ball out of bounds fighting for the rebound. Possession, Michigan.

The Wolverines inbounded and worked the ball around the perimeter. Ray Jackson screamed at Chris Webber, Michigan's colossal forward and resident super hero.

"Get your butt over there!" Jackson shouted, nodding across the lane, where Martinez stood.

Webber raced across the lane and established position on Martinez. Jackson tossed him the ball. He immediately wheeled around Martinez and banked in the layup. Michigan was up one with 41 seconds left. Whaaat? How had this happened?

The Wildcats came racing downcourt, point guard Travis Ford dribbling, darting, looking for an opening. One opened and he was through it and heading for the basket, passing off at last second to center Rodney Dent, up for the dunk, the lead again, and . . . blocked. By Jalen Rose.

"Great players make great players at the end," Fisher said. "That's what happened here."

Rose brought the ball up the court and was fouled with 21 seconds left. Only the season on the line. Pressure? No problem.

"Just like in practice," Rose said later, in the locker room, mimicking his free-throw motion, bending his knees, flexing, swish.

One good. Two good. Michigan was up by three. How had this happened? The Wildcats got off one more shot, a rushed three-pointer by Martinez, badly off, and then Webber deflected an inbounds pass to end the game.

So fast. Gone so fast.

Erase whatever notions you had about this Michigan team. All that blather about all talent, no heart. That stuff about underachievers. Just forget it. It's wrong.

"What this game proves," Rose said, "is what we've been saying all year. We're winners. Winners find a way to win. Kentucky was a great team. We won the game."

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