'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 title in 1st year on job

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

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

The Wildcats won their second NCAA championship in three years last night, as they overcame a 12-point deficit in the second half and got a huge lift from their bench to stop Utah, 78-69, before 40,509 at the Alamodome.

The Utes had blown into Texas with an ace point guard and a weighty coach, but Andre Miller didn't get enough help and Tubby Smith was able to do what no one else had done in this tournament, match the bench moves and motivation of Rick Majerus.

These Cardiac 'Cats, who had come back from big holes in their two previous games, rallied from a first-half deficit of 10 to lead with seven minutes left, but were still down by four with less than six minutes to play. They outscored Utah 18-5 the rest of the way, however, as the Utes had just three baskets over the final 11 minutes, missing 15 of their last 18 shots.

"I probably should have played the bench a little more," Majerus said. "I think fatigue factored into it.

"I credit Kentucky. They're a deserving champion. We threw our best at them defensively and they scored against it. Our hats go off to them."

Kentucky, which made 11 of 12 free throws down the stretch, got 17 points from Scott Padgett, and 16 from Jeff Sheppard, the MVP of the Final Four.

Miller had 16 before fouling out in the final minute, and the Wildcats' defense held Utah's leading scorer, center Michael Doleac, without a field goal in the second half.

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 [Smith] had high expectations coming into the season," Wayne Turner, the Wildcats' point guard, said of the former Tulsa and Georgia coach. "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've been working for this since Day 1. 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 title defense and oust top-ranked North Carolina in the semifinals. For the third straight year, however, the Utes' season ended with a loss to the Wildcats.

Utah, the third seed in the West Regional, had limited defending champion Arizona to a season-low 51 points and North Carolina to 59, and their defensive grit did the trick against Kentucky, too. Kentucky maintained its poise, remained patient, and ended up shooting 50.9 percent from the field, 57.7 in the second half.

The Wildcats' bench outscored that of the Utes, 25-7.

Smith's teams used a 9-0 spurt to go ahead 60-58 with 7: 16 left, but the Utes answered right back with three straight baskets. Kentucky countered with a 10-1 run of its own that finally put away the Utes.

The 9-0 spurt wiped out a 58-51 Utah lead. It included a driving basket by Allen Edwards, an inside score by Nazr Mohammed, a three-pointer from the left corner by reserve Cameron Mills and a steal and dunk by Sheppard that put Kentucky on top for the first time since the fourth minute.

Utah had gone five minutes without a basket before Miller drove the length of the court, then fed Alex Jensen to give Utah a 64-60 lead with 5: 52 left.

Kentucky then delivered its decisive 10-1 run, which started with another three by Mills. Sheppard put the Wildcats ahead for good with 4: 53 left when he drove the right baseline in transition, and the 'Cats made their next five free throws to go on top 70-65 with 2: 52 left.

Utah, meanwhile, could get nothing going on offense, as its only points over a five-minute span were a free throw apiece by Doleac and Miller. The Utah center had 12 points in the first half, but only three free throws in the second.

"Kentucky did a good job of doubling down on Michael in the second half," Majerus said. "They [Kentucky] are athletic, they're good, they're deep. They have more players."

Miller attempted a three-pointer with 45 seconds left that could have brought Utah within one, but Heshimu Evans swatted it -- and the Utes' upstart run through the tournament -- away.

Down by as many as 12 points twice in the opening minutes of the second half, Kentucky got back in the game with a D-3 attack, as the Wildcats tightened their defense and finally found their touch on the perimeter.

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