Last jewel in crowning tournament

March 31, 1998|By John Eisenberg

SAN ANTONIO -- Best tournament ever?

There's no way to determine it, but March Madness can't get any madder than it did this year.

After all the upsets and surprises that led up to the championship game last night at the Alamodome, Kentucky and Utah played a stirring final.

The Utes appeared on the verge of completing a long-shot run to the title; they had a big lead with 15 minutes left, much as they did in their upsets of Arizona and North Carolina.

This time, they couldn't hold the lead.

They tired, as if it finally occurred to them what they were on the verge of accomplishing.

And then Kentucky came back, just as it did against Duke and Stanford.

"We knew we'd come back. We're the comeback kids," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said after the Wildcats' 78-69 victory.

The Wildcats' fans could chant "Tub-by!" in triumph because the Wildcats played with remarkable poise under pressure.

They scored 38 of the game's last 57 points, limiting Utah to three baskets in the last 11 minutes.

"I'm not sure if we got worn out," Utah center Michael Doleac said. "I was tired. But we were playing for the national title, so that shouldn't matter. But maybe [being tired] was it."

Regardless, Utah joined a crowd of teams that just couldn't finish off the Wildcats this year.

In their last three tournament games, the Wildcats made up second-half deficits of 17 points against Duke, 10 points against Stanford and 12 points against Utah.

No team had ever won the championship game after trailing by 10 at halftime, as the Wildcats did after getting out-rebounded by a 24-6 margin in the first 20 minutes. That's right, 24-6.

"We obviously talked about that at halftime," Kentucky's Scott Padgett said. "We knew we had to do a better job than that. We were a better team than that. We came out and played with our hearts."

When Utah still led, 50-40, with 15: 46 to play, it appeared the Utes were going to ride their defense all the way to a title. Just as they had against Arizona and Carolina, they had targeted Kentucky's top scorer and made it a priority to deny him his favorite shots.

The target this time was Jeff Sheppard, and he was faring no better than Arizona's Miles Simon and Mike Bibby and Carolina's Shammond Williams and Antawn Jamison had against the Utes. Muscled on the perimeter, he made only two baskets in the first 22 minutes and often had no choice but to pass.

But this is a Kentucky team of deep resources, and it showed when guard Heshimu Evans came off the bench to start a rally just when it appeared the Wildcats were sinking. Evans hit one three-pointer, then another, then scored again on a drive.

Suddenly, the big lead was down to five points with an eternity of 13: 45 to play.

Then Sheppard and Padgett finally began to find open shots in JTC the seams of Utah's defense, and the game's whole tenor suddenly changed.

"They stepped up and hit a lot of big shots," Utah's Britton Johnsen said. "I give them credit for that. I thought we had it for sure. But I was dead-tired in the second half."

The Utes made a final stand, scoring six straight points to regain the lead at 64-60 with 5: 48 remaining. But Kentucky scored 10 of the next 11 points, with five players contributing. That was it. Ballgame.

"It's too unbelievable to be real," Kentucky center Nazr Mohammed said.

The comeback only added fuel to the idea that this was maybe the best tournament ever. Why? Let us count the ways:

Classic games. There were two: Kentucky's overtime victory over Stanford in Saturday's national semifinals, which drew a standing ovation from the coaches' section of the crowd, and Kentucky's rally against Duke.

Maybe the best buzzer-beater ever. They'll all be judged against Valparaiso's shot to beat Ole Miss: a 75-foot pass, a quick transfer to Bryce Drew and a three-pointer at the horn -- with Drew's father, Valpo head coach Homer Drew, cheering from the bench. Let's cast the movie now.

Stunning results. Utah by 25 over Arizona? They'll play this tournament another half-dozen times without coming up with anything that comes close to that for sheer, jaw-dropping astonishment.

Unpredictability. Thirty-nine percent of the games over the first two weekends were won by lower-seeded teams.

Classic basketball. Just when you thought the college game had become little more than an up-tempo, three-point shooting parade, along came Utah and Stanford playing the game we used to know: setting picks, blocking out underneath, cutting hard to the basket, playing elbows-out defense -- and reaching the Final Four. Nice to see some two-point baskets, for a change.

Smith was asked on Sunday if this was "maybe one of the best and most exciting" NCAA tournaments ever.

"It's hard to appreciate when you're in the midst of it," he said. "But with the way the games have been, the closeness and the parity of the teams, it's helped to generate more excitement than anyone could witness, this tournament."

Or, to quote the always-somber Dick Vitale from before Monday's final: "Man, this tournament has been the best of all time!"

He says that every year, of course.

But this year, he just might be right.

Pub Date: 3/31/98

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