Underdog is tail that wags Final 4

March 29, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

SAN ANTONIO - You can't say you weren't warned.

The first two weeks of the NCAA tournament were a movable feast of upsets. Why not the third?

Tradition took one wicked pounding at the Final Four semifinals yesterday at the Alamodome.

North Carolina and Kentucky came in with their records and reputations and all those good things that go with years of success, and Utah and Stanford were, well, not at all impressed.

One inch here and here and there was all that separated America from a Utah-Stanford final tomorrow night.

One inch here and there enabled Kentucky to beat Stanford in an overtime classic that drew a theater-like standing ovation at the final buzzer.

Carolina didn't show the same survival skills. Shammond Williams couldn't hit a shot for the second year in a row in the Final Four, and the dull-eyed Tar Heels fell to Utah with surprising ease.

"This is what's great about the NCAA tournament," said Utah center Michael Doleac. "Records don't mean that much. The teams that are playing the best win."

There was no doubt Utah was playing better than Carolina yesterday. Kentucky? It played no better than Stanford, but survived.

The moral? Don't believe it ! when Utah goes off as the underdog tomorrow night. The ' Utes have soundly beaten Arizona and North Carolina in their past two games. Enough said.

This is the year that records and reputations don't matter.

The Utes were so intimidated by Carolina's tradition that they It jumped out to a 16-2 lead.

"Maybe we were too tight and just wanted it too badly after last year," said Carolina coach Bill Guthridge, who was Dean Smith's assistant when the Tar Heels lost to Arizona in the national semifinals last year.

Wait, let's give Utah some credit. The Utes muscled Antawn Jamison inside and Williams on the perimeter, resulting in poor shooting nights for Carolina's two most dangerous scorers.

Williams made just two of 12 shots in a virtual instant replay of his 1-for-13 performance against Arizona last year. That's a 3-for-25 shooting record in the national semifinals, for those scoring at home.

Jamison worked for decent shots in the first half, but he missed many of them, seemed to get discouraged and stopped working as hard in the second half.

You almost expected him to start limping again, as he did when Maryland similarly denied him shots in the ACC tournament semifinals.

The Tar Heels did rally, turning to a zone defense and cutting Utah's 13-point halftime lead to two with 1:58 left. But Utah guard Andre Miller drove for a basket to start a five-point run that settled the issue.

"I can't tell you how happy I am," said Utah coach Rick Majerus.

No sour cream enchilada in San Antonio is safe for the next 48 hours.

"I mean, we are right there to win a national championship," Majerus said. "At least we're playing for it."

Stanford easily could have been the other team in the final.

One decent shot to win is all the Cardinal wanted at the end of overtime yesterday.

Just one squared-up, reasonable shot at the basket.

Given the way the Cardinal was going, hitting one remarkable shot after another, was there any doubt that the shot would have fallen and the Cardinal would have rekindled memories of North Carolina State, Villanova and other famous Final Four underdogs?

"Not in my mind," Stanford guard Arthur Lee said. "We have been on an amazing roll in this tournament. If we could have gotten a shot to win, I would have felt great about our chances."

But the shot never came.

An inch here, an inch there.

The Cardinal did get one last shot at the end, but it was a 70-foot prayer by Peter Sauer that didn't hit the backboard.

Only then were Kentucky's players, coaches and overconfident fans able to sigh with relief.

Only then was it assured that Stanford couldn't make another improbable comeback.

Already the Cardinal had absorbed three of Kentucky's best knockout punches-three hard shots that would have floored just about any other opponent.

There were the two three-pointers by the Wildcats' Jeff Sheppard that appeared to decide the game at the end of regulation.

The five straight points that the Wildcats scored at the start of overtime.

The three-pointer by Sheppard that gave the Wildcats a four-point lead with 80 seconds left in overtime.

Somehow, some way, the Cardinal overcame each and climbed back into the game.

Lee hit a three-pointer to force overtime, and improbable shots by Sauer, Lee and Ryan Mendez carried the Cardinal from behind in the extra period.

"It was amazing, really, the way they kept hitting those shots to stay in the game " Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "We'd get up and they'd come back."

All they needed was one decent shot at the end. They had their chances in the final 10 seconds. Freshman Jason Collins almost stole the ball from Kentucky's Scott Padgett. Lee almost intercepted a pass intended for Kentucky's Wayne Turner.

"I was already starting to think' about what I was going to do after' I had the ball," Lee said.

"We get the ball there, we come down and we win," Stanford coach Mike Montgomery said.

But Lee missed the interception by an inch and Kentucky held on.

"When that buzzer sounded, I couldn't believe it," Lee said. "I thought for sure we'd find a way to, win."

They didn't.

An inch here, an inch there.

That's all that kept us from a Stanford-Utah final tomorrow night.

That's all that kept us from a doubleheader sweep of upsets yesterday.

Don't say you weren't warned. '

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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