Title this one Syracues vs. Kentucky Wildcats turn back UMass, 81-74

March 31, 1996|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The cynics said Kentucky would melt under the white-hot glow of a pressure game, that the Wildcats would pay a heavy price for being too good for their opposition.

Last night, under the hottest of lights, Kentucky proved it was good enough to win the close ones, too.

In the hottest of ovens -- the one inspired by Marcus Camby -- the Wildcats stood up to the pressure and outlasted Massachusetts, 81-74, in the national semifinals before 19,229 at the Meadowlands.

The Wildcats (33-2) will meet Syracuse, a 77-69 winner over Mississippi State in yesterday's other semifinal, for the championship tomorrow night.

Kentucky got 20 points from Tony Delk and hit 10 of its last 12 free throws to turn back the No. 1-ranked Minutemen in the final seconds. UMass (35-2) got within 63-60 with five minutes to go and 73-70 with a minute left before the Wildcats put the game away.

Camby led the valiant Massachusetts comeback with 25 points. A three-point basket by Carmelo Travieso got the Minutemen within 73-70, but Kentucky scored the next three times down the court to open a 79-70 lead with 27 seconds left.

Mark Pope hit two big free throws to start the 6-0 run. After Edgar Padilla missed a jumper, Anthony Epps threw a court-length pass to Antoine Walker for a slam dunk and 77-70 lead.

When Delk followed with a layup, Massachusetts was out of comebacks.

Kentucky's depth was its best weapon in the first half, when coach Rick Pitino's thoroughbred bench kept the pressure on the Minutemen and opened a 36-28 halftime lead.

The Wildcats' press kept the action fast and frenetic. The first time they went to it, Walker forced a turnover, then fed Delk with a behind-the-back pass for a layup. Fouled on the shot, Delk converted for a three-point play.

UMass recovered in the next few minutes to break the press and gained control of the tempo for a brief period. The Minutemen led 13-9 seven minutes into the game after Donta Bright's layup capped an 11-4 run.

But the Wildcats got a tie at 15 on a three-point basket by Epps, and another at 17 on a baseline jumper by Ron Mercer.

Massachusetts took its last lead of the half, 18-17, when Bright hit the front end of a two-shot foul with 10: 33 left.

Then it was Kentucky's turn. The Wildcats got dunks from Walter McCarty and Pope, and another three-point play from Delk in an 11-2 run. Delk scored a layup after Camby lost the ball in a double-team, then made a free throw to open a 28-20 lead.

Massachusetts got the deficit down to four on three occasions, but baskets by Walker and Delk to close the half gave Kentucky its eight-point halftime lead.

Delk had 12 points at the break, and Walker seven.

The Wildcats had only a measure of success against Camby. Pitino alternated McCarty and Pope in their man coverage, and dropped off Walker to help whenever Camby got the ball.

As a result, the consensus national player of the year had eight points, but hit only three of nine shots. Camby dominated on the defensive end with five blocked shots.

Kentucky had eight steals and forced 10 turnovers in the first half, and held the Minutemen to 37.9 percent shooting (11-for-29).

Massachusetts coach John Calipari used nine players in the first half -- and eight scored.

Kentucky scored the first seven points of the second half to take its biggest lead of the game at 15 points. When Derek Anderson hit two free throws two minutes into the half, the Wildcats were up 43-28.

The Minutemen countered with a 13-4 run that pulled the New England crowd into the game. Baskets by Dana Dingle and Bright started the spurt.

Down 47-34, UMass whittled the deficit to six on two baskets by Camby, including a follow dunk, and a twisting layup by Dingle. With 14: 31 left, the Minutemen were down 47-41 and had a chance to cut it more, but were guilty of a shot-clock violation.

Kentucky recovered to gain control -- if not a stranglehold. Delk hit a three-pointer from the corner and a series of scoreless exchanges and then in the space of 30 seconds, Walker threw down two dunks that broke the lead open to 54-41.

Travieso brought Massachusetts back one more time, though, when he hit back-to-back three pointers from the corner. The second, with 8: 30 left, made it a 56-49 game.

After Delk missed the front end of a one-and-one, UMass missed a chance to get within two when Bright bounced a pass off Camby's leg and out of bounds.

At the other end, Mercer hit a three to make it 59-49 with 7: 47 left.

Final Four

At East Rutherford, N.J.

Semifinals: Yesterday

Syracuse 77, Mississippi State 69

.` Kentucky 81, Massachusetts 74

Championship: Tomorrow

Syracuse (29-8) vs. Kentucky (33-2),

9: 22 p.m., chs. 13, 9

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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