Kentucky Claws Back to Beat Duke
By Ken Denlinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 23, 1998; Page D1
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., March 22 If the Duke-Kentucky regional final six years ago was the best game in the history of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, the one they played today ought to be 1A. It went down to the last shot again, only this time Duke missed and Kentucky, which had overcome a 17-point deficit in the final nine-plus minutes, won the South Region title, 86-84, before 40,589 at Tropicana Field.
The Wildcats (33-4), who trailed by 18 points in the first half, will meet Midwest Region champion Stanford in a national semifinal Saturday in San Antonio.
Junior forward Scott Padgett put the Wildcats into the lead for good with a three-point shot with 39.4 seconds left that broke an 81-81 tie. The only other time they had led was when guard Cameron Mills hit a three-pointer with 2:15 left.
After Padgett's go-ahead three-pointer, Duke forward Roshown McLeod (19 points, 8 rebounds) missed a three-point try, Kentucky guard Wayne Turner (16 points, 8 assists) was fouled and made the second of two free throws for an 85-81 lead. McLeod then made a three-pointer and the Blue Devils fouled forward Allen Edwards with 4.5 seconds left. After Edwards made the second of two free throws for an 86-84 margin, the Blue Devils had to go the length of the floor to win or cause overtime.
The situation looked a lot as it did six years ago, when Duke trailed by a point with 2.1 seconds left in overtime in the East Region final. In that game, Grant Hill passed the ball three-quarters of the floor to Christian Laettner, who hit a turnaround jumper from near the free throw line for a 104-103 Duke victory.
There were different players and different strategies today. Kentucky called two 20-second timeouts before the inbounds pass and did not allow passer Shane Battier many options. Further complicating matters for the Blue Devils, they had used their last timeout five minutes earlier, so advancing the ball to midcourt and calling time was not possible.
"We were trying to free Trajan [Langdon] or Roshown for the long pass," Battier said. "They put someone on me, so I had a difficult time seeing."
Battier's only choice was a pass to a fellow freshman, guard William Avery, in the back court. Swift players can go from there all the way to the basket in 4.5 seconds, as UCLA's Tyus Edney showed in sinking a winning layup against Missouri in a second-round game three years ago.
Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith had a counter.
"He told us to keep everyone in front of us," said guard Jeff Sheppard (18 points, 11 rebounds), who ended up shadowing Avery. "I knew I wasn't going to stop him, but I had to slow him up."
He did. Avery dribbled the ball to midcourt, slipped it behind his back to free himself of Sheppard but had to let fly from about 35 feet. It hit halfway up the backboard and bounced hard and harmlessly away.
Kentucky then began a celebration that included Mills lying prone near one end of the court and then going to about where Avery had launched his shot a few minutes earlier and assuming a prayer-like position.
"I just thanked God for the last four years of our lives," said Mills, a senior tri-captain. "I didn't know what else to do."
Kentucky fans were all but praying for a good portion of the second half. With 9:38 left, when Duke's Chris Carrawell hit a follow-up shot, the Blue Devils had a 71-54 lead and seemed very much en route to the Final Four. Duke fans were confident Coach Mike Krzyzewski would be 8 for 8 in regional finals.
However, with forward Heshimu Evans (14 points, 11 rebounds) and Padgett each hitting a three-pointer and Turner two free throws, the Wildcats narrowed the margin to eight in just over a minute as part of a 17-1 run.
Duke didn't relinquish the lead until Mills hit that three-pointer with 2:15 to play his first in five tries during four tournament games to put Kentucky ahead, 80-79. McLeod then hit two free throws and Padgett sank one to tie the game at 81 with 80 seconds remaining.
Avery missed a drive before Pad gett's game-turning three-pointer set up the final drama.
"I've never been part of a comeback like that," Evans said. "But I knew we wouldn't give up. We have too much character and heart for that."
They had plenty of opportunity to give up. Duke's blitz started with the second shot of the game, a three-pointer by guard Steve Wojciechowski that provided a 5-2 lead, and didn't end until just before freshman center Elton Brand picked up his second foul with 6:55 left in the half. By that time, the Blue Devils had made 16 of 20 shots, scored 17 consecutive points and, with not a single turnover, burst to a 38-20 lead.
During that run, the Wildcats survived only on free throws, four of them by Sheppard.
The modest band of Duke students on hand at one end of the court tried to help whenever possible. As Kentucky center Nazr Mohammed shot a pair of foul shots in their direction, they chanted: "You're no prophet, you're no prophet." Probably by coincidence, he bricked both shots, the second not even coming close to hitting anything.
Still, there was no panic by the Wildcats. "We could look in each other's eyes and we knew we could come back," Smith said. "We had done it before."
From missing 12 of their first 17 shots and throwing away the ball five times, the Wildcats righted themselves with a run of 12 points. They pulled to 38-32 on a driving shot by Sheppard with 4:11 left before halftime. The key was Duke going cold and Brand being on the bench with two fouls.
But Brand returned, and Duke regained its composure. It pulled to a 49-39 halftime lead as Battier hit a pair of foul shots and dunked over Jamaal Magliore.
Kentucky made some modest runs early in the second half, but Langdon, Carrawell and Wojciechowski hit enough shots from the outside for nearly everyone to figure this would be nothing close to that classic six years ago. Wrong.
"We're going to treasure this moment for a long time," Smith said.
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