Wildcats Give Pause to Their Latest Feat
By Ken Denlinger
SAN ANTONIO, March 31 Very early this morning, less than two hours after Kentucky had won its seventh NCAA men's basketball tournament and second in three seasons, the lobby of the hotel that housed the players, coaches, school officials and well-connected fans was in a full-party frenzy.
A few steps from a bar, dozens of people wearing freshly printed national championship T-shirts and caps gathered in a half-moon configuration near a large-screen television and watched a complete replay of the 78-69 victory over Utah they had seen in person not so long ago.
Cheers erupted at all the proper times, when shooting guard Jeff Sheppard hit a short baseline jumper with just under five minutes left to give the Wildcats their first lead of the game, when point guard Wayne Turner hit a free throw that extended the lead to five points with 2 minutes 52 seconds left and when Turner slammed home a dunk with 13 seconds left that sealed the greatest comeback victory in NCAA final history.
"Who let them 'Cats out?" yelled a man with a drink in one hand and a cigar in the other. "UUUUUtah."
Kentucky had trailed Utah by 10 points at the half and no team had ever faced such a deficit in the final and won. The Wildcats actually were down by 12 four minutes into the second half.
But they had been behind at the half 12 times this season and won 10. They had been behind Duke by 17 points about midway through the second half of the South Region final and won. They had been behind Stanford by 10 points in the second half of Saturday's national semifinal and won.
"We've learned that if we keep our poise, continue to play hard and not give up, we can make good things happen," said backup guard Heshimu Evans, whose two three-pointers, a layup and a blocked shot sparked Monday night's decisive rally. "We're a fighting team. The Comeback 'Cats."
That was earlier, amid hugs and shouts in the dressing room. Now, he and a few other players drifted through the din. Forward Scott Padgett, with his cap on backward and a sliver of net he'd cut down from the Alamodome tied to it. Center Nazr Mohammed, carrying a plate of food and tumbler of orange juice. Turner in sweats and thongs.
Almost unnoticed was Sheppard, judged the Final Four's most outstanding player after scoring 27 points in the overtime victory over Stanford and 12 of his 16 points against Utah in the second half. That's because Kentucky's latest mega-hero was sitting on the mud-colored tile floor, his back propped against a wall near the registration desk.
Close by on the floor were the people who mattered most to him: his parents, Ralph and Kyle, his fiancee, Stacey Reed, her parents and some other relatives. They had been drained and this small area seemed as good a spot as any to plop.
Few words were exchanged. Some fans, flabbergasted at seeing Sheppard in such a position, would kneel and offer something he would autograph. Later, Sheppard walked off for several minutes and returned carrying a plate overflowing with hamburgers and chocolate chip cookies.
"Amazing," Kentucky assistant Mike Sutton said, looking at the scene but referring to the season.
It surely was. Kentucky had come off the pace during the season and the tournament to win the grandest prize. There had been three losses at home. That led to a No. 5 ranking in the final regular season polls behind the Almighty Four North Carolina, Duke, Arizona and Kansas all of whom were favored to make the Final Four, only one of whom did.
The Wildcats extended their NCAA record for victories over three-and four-year periods, 104 and 132, respectively. They also have more tournament victories, 81, and played in more tournament games, 115, than any other school.
They also will be among the favorites to win next year and that means taking aim at some of UCLA's records. The Bruins lead in NCAA titles (11), Final Four games (28) and Final Four victories (24). Kentucky has 7 championships, 23 Final Four games and 17 Final Four victories.
This was Kentucky's third consecutive Final Four appearance; Duke had a run of five in a row that began in 1988. UCLA made seven consecutive Final Fours, starting in 1967, and won the title each time.
The Wildcats lose Sheppard, starting forward Allen Edwards and backup guard Cameron Mills. Returning are players who scored 50 of their 78 points against Utah and who finished one through four in rebounding for the season.
In full sunlight shortly before 11 a.m. today, the players and coaches looked surprisingly alert as they headed for breakfast. The lobby was quiet and clean. A bus trip through the city was planned before the flight back to Lexington and a roaring reception.
"It feels even better today," Turner said, "because what we did is finally sinking in."
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