'Cats claw back for title Down 10 at half, Ky. storms back to dash Utah's run, 78-69

Utes miss 15 of last 18 shots

Md. native Smith wins crown in 1st year on job

March 31, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

SAN ANTONIO -- The tornado that came down from the Rockies and devastated Arizona and North Carolina finally calmed down when it got to Kentucky.

The Wildcats won their second NCAA championship in three years last night, and they did so with a familiar script, as they overcame a 12-point deficit in the second half and outscored Utah 18-5 down the stretch to put away the Utes, 78-69, before 40,509 at the Alamodome.

Utah had blown into Texas with a hot point guard and a quip-telling, whip-cracking coach, but there were too many bodies for Andre Miller to get by, and Kentucky first-year coach Tubby Smith did what no one else had done in this tournament, match the bench moves and motivation of Rick Majerus.

The Cardiac 'Cats, who dug big holes in their two previous tournament games but overcame Duke and Stanford, won for the 10th time this season after trailing at the half, as they limited Utah to three baskets over the last 12 minutes. A 10-point halftime deficit was the biggest ever overcome in a championship game.

"We knew we would come back," Smith said. "We are the comeback kids. They've been under duress all season long."

Smith, a native of the Southern Maryland town of Scotland, became the third African-American to coach an NCAA men's basketball champion. The significance of his accomplishment is only heightened by the fact that it came at Kentucky, which long bore the stain of a racist architect, Adolph Rupp.

"We knew he had high expectations coming into this season," said Wayne Turner, Smith's point guard. "Folks were telling him not to take the job because of the expectations, but he pulled us through. He really is a great coach. We had something to prove. We showed everyone."

It was the seventh NCAA title for Kentucky (35-4), second only to UCLA's 11. The Wildcats won in 1996 and dropped last year's final in overtime to Arizona, and the nation's premier program never missed a beat despite the departure of Ron Mercer and coach Rick Pitino.

Kentucky's path to the title was cleared by Utah (30-4), which had used the incredible play of Miller and Majerus' scheming to end Arizona's defense and oust top-rated North Carolina in the ++ semifinals. For the third straight year, however, the Utes' season ended with a loss to the Wildcats, as Majerus had no counter for Kentucky's bench, which outscored his 25-7.

Smith doesn't have a lottery pick on his team, but like Majerus, he has players who do what he asks. In this game of two halves, he had plenty of demands at the break.

Utah out-rebounded Kentucky 39-24, the biggest margin ever for a losing team, but that bulge was 24-6 at the half, and the Wildcats actually out-boarded the Utes in the second half.

Kentucky shot 45.2 percent in the first half, but didn't have a single three-pointer in the first 23 minutes. The Wildcats shot a clutch 57.7 percent in the second half however, and that included 5-for-11 beyond the arc.

When freshman Britton Johnsen scored underneath against the Wildcats' pressure, the Utes were still at a 56.7 clip (21-for-37), but Kentucky was already gearing up its 3-D attack.

Over the last 12 minutes, Utah had just three baskets, missing 15 of its final 18 shots, as the easy transition opportunities it got in the first half disappeared in the wake of the Wildcats' hustle.

Kentucky was down by 12 with 16 minutes to go, seven with 10 left and four with less than six minutes to go in the season, but the Wildcats had a 9-0 run to go on top with seven minutes left, then used a 10-1 spurt to put away Utah for good.

Kentucky, which made 11 of 12 free-throw attempts down the stretch, got 17 points from forward Scott Padgett. Jeff Sheppard, the MVP of the Final Four, had 12 of his 16 in the second half. Both are fifth-year seniors.

For Utah, Miller had 16 before fouling out in the final minute, but he had more turnovers (eight) than he did assists (five). Center Michael Doleac had 15 points, but he didn't have a single basket in the second half, when Smith ordered up a double team whenever the Utes went into the low post.

"I think Mike wore down," Majerus said. "He's our only big guy. Kentucky's athletic. They're good. They're deep. They've got more players."

One of them was Heshimu Evans, a transfer from Manhattan who had 10 points and a block of Miller's three-point attempt with 45 seconds left that swatted away Utah's bid for good.

Evans got Kentucky's first three-pointer with 16: 11 left. He added another on the Wildcats' next possession, and when he followed with a driving basket, what had been a 45-33 lead for Utah was down to 50-45 with 13: 45 left.

Next up off the bench: Cameron Mills, who had two big three-pointers of his own.

The first was in the center of a 9-0 run that put the Wildcats ahead 60-58 with 7: 10 to go, their first lead since the fourth minute. The second came after Utah had gotten its bearings with six straight points, which turned out to be a last gasp when Mills triggered Kentucky's decisive closing run with a shot from the top of the key.

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