Duke bulge, ghosts vanish NCAA TOURNAMENT

March 23, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- There are some holes in the synthetic dome at Tropicana Field yesterday that probably will be patched up by the time the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays begin their first season here next week. They did more than let in a little air yesterday during the NCAA South Regional final between Duke and Kentucky.

They let in some ghosts.

They had been hanging around for six years, haunting more the school's fans than the Wildcats themselves, waiting for the moment for revenge against another bunch of Blue Devils. In the course of nine frantic minutes that saw Kentucky overcome a 17-point deficit and beat Duke, 86-84, they were exorcised once and for all.

They disappeared from sight the moment Duke freshman William Avery's desperation 30-footer banked high off the backboard as time expired, sending the Wildcats immediately to the floor in celebration and ultimately to their third straight Final Four, this time against Stanford in Saturday's semifinals at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

"It was just a very difficult ending," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who lost for the first time in eight regional finals. "Our kids put us in a position to win and we didn't. But we didn't lose this game. Kentucky won it." Said Kentucky senior forward Scott Padgett: "I guess this will make up for '92 in the eyes of the fans. If [Christian] Laettner's shot was infamous for Kentucky fans, my shot will be infamous for Duke fans."

Padgett took his place in this long and storied program when his three-point shot with 39.4 seconds to play gave Kentucky (33-4) an 84-81 lead. And it was Padgett who took his place on the court in the last 4.5 seconds, making sure that Roshown McLeod didn't do to the Wildcats what Laettner did to them in the 1992 East Regional final.

That was the thought many of the 40,589 fans, not to mention many of the players and coaches, had when Duke freshman Shane Battier stood under the Kentucky basket looking to inbound the ball. But with McLeod and Trajan Langdon covered, Battier couldn't do what Grant Hill did in lofting a perfect pass to Laettner, whose 17-footer gave Duke a 104-103 win. Instead, he shoveled the ball to Avery, who sped and spun upcourt before launching his shot.

"No question, that game was going through my mind," said Avery, who had taken over for senior point guard Steve Wojciechowski on the final possession. "I was praying that the outcome would be the same, but it didn't happen. No question, I wanted the ball. All good players want the ball in that situation."

Though there was no game-winning shot in overtime as there had been six years ago in Philadelphia, there was the same heart-pounding drama leading up to the final play. There was not only one comeback from a double-digit deficit as there had been for the Wildcats in that game. This time there were two.

The first came after Duke (32-4) scored 17 straight points to take a 38-20 lead with 7 1/2 minutes left in the first half. Kentucky scored the next 12 points before the Blue Devils built their lead back to 10, 49-39, at halftime. It was the most points the Wildcats had given up in the first half of any game this season.

"No one has ever seen a Kentucky team quit," said Jeff Sheppard, a fifth-year senior who was on the 1994 team that came back from a 31-point deficit to LSU with 16 minutes left and the 1995 team that erased a nine-point deficit in overtime to beat Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference tournament. "We don't know what the word means."

This time, the deficit reached 17 twice in the second half, first at 69-52 with 11 minutes left and again at 71-54 with 9: 38 to go. A three-point shot by reserve forward Heshimu Evans with 9: 26 remaining started a 17-1 run that brought the Wildcats to within a point, 72-71, with six minutes to go. That's 17 points in three minutes and 26 seconds in a matter of six possessions.

"I could see in everybody's eyes that we were going to win the game," said Kentucky point guard Wayne Turner, who had fueled the comeback and finished with 16 points. "We could see they were getting tired."

It showed in the way Turner attacked Wojciechowski, taking advantage of his speed and scoring four times on the Duke point guard. It showed in the way the Wildcats grabbed several key offensive rebounds, one of them resulting in a tap-out to Cameron Mills, whose three-point shot with 2: 13 to go had finally given Kentucky a lead at 81-80.

Still, Duke had its chances. McLeod, who scored a game-high 19 points, hit a pair of free throws with 1: 58 left to put the Blue Devils back ahead. Even after a free throw by Padgett tied the score with 1: 20 to go, even after Padgett's three-pointer had pushed Kentucky ahead by three, even after a free throw by Turner had made it 85-81 with 16.7 seconds left, Duke was not finished.

After three straight empty possessions, McLeod hit a three with five seconds left.

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