Kentucky Comes Back to the Top
By Ken Denlinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 31, 1998; Page C1
SAN ANTONIO, March 30 Kentucky is the winningest program in the history of major college basketball. Tonight, a Wildcats team without a star that glitters much beyond campus brought home its seventh national championship with a 78-69 victory over Utah.
Once more, the Wildcats (35-4) came from behind, and in erasing a 10-point halftime deficit, they set an NCAA title game record with the greatest comeback. They won going away after gaining the lead for good on a short baseline jumper by Jeff Sheppard with 4 minutes 51 seconds left.
"I want to thank these wonderful young men who really earned the right to be called national champions," Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith said. "This is a dream come true for all of us."
Wildcats heroes were numerous and included backup guard Heshimu Evans, who scored 10 points and had a critical block down the stretch. Kentucky maintained a four-point lead with free throws and the punctuation was provided by a dunk by point guard Andre Turner with about 14 seconds left.
As the Wildcats rallied early in the second half, the Utes suddenly were uncommonly rattled. The rally mostly was generated by Evans, who hit two three-pointers and a drive.
The Utes clung to the lead on baskets by freshman forward Britton Johnsen and forward Hanno Mottola.
Just before he fouled out with 8:10 left, Kentucky's Nazr Mohammed brought Kentucky to within three points with a layup. Backup guard Cameron Mills then tied the game with a three-pointer with 7:36 left and Jeff Sheppard provided the first Kentucky lead, 60-58, on a fast-break dunk after stealing a cross-court pass.
The Wildcats stretched that lead to three points over the next four minutes as Mills hit another three pointer, Sheppard tossed in a short baseline leaner and backup center Jamaal Magloire had two foul shots.
Turner increased that advantage to 70-65 with a free throw with 2:52 left and that was the margin when Utah called time to plan a play with 95 seconds remaining. But the Utes, who had only one basket in the last 5:49, could not muster a comeback.
There were contrasts and similarities galore as the teams took the floor for the warmup, exactly an hour before tip-off as the NCAA had mandated. Most of Kentucky's key players had been on or near the teams that won the championship two years ago and lost to Arizona, in overtime, for the title last season.
By contrast, Utah had players whose fathers were not born the last time the school won the tournament, 1944. The Utes hadn't made the Final Four since 1966.
When the coaches, Kentucky's Tubby Smith and Utah's Rick Majerus, shook hands near midcourt at the end of the introductions, it gave pause to consider how far they had come in their high-risk, high-reward profession.
Smith is 46, the last of 17 children born and raised on a farm in southern Maryland who accepted the toughest job in his sport after paying dues as an assistant and then doing fine work as a head coach at Tulsa and Georgia. One of his stops as an assistant was at Kentucky, from 1989 through 1991, and he helped Rick Pitino restore glory and credibility to a probation-plagued program.
Majerus is 50 and one of the funniest and most respected strategists in the game. He was an assistant when Marquette won the NCAA title in 1977 and later was head coach there and at Ball State before assuming control of the Utes nine years ago.
Although the Utes needed no more motivation than the game, one was available being knocked out of the tournament by Kentucky three of the last five years.
"We've been waiting a long time for this," Utah reserve guard David Jackson said before tonight's game. "I wasn't here the first time we lost to them . I was here last year [for the loss in the round of eight]. Hopefully, it's going to be sweet revenge."
Among the concerns for Utah was how quickly guard Drew Hansen's slightly-stiff back would loosen. That concern was heightened early when Sheppard blew by him for a layup in the game's first three minutes.
One of Kentucky's fears, getting behind rather early, became a reality. From a one-point lead with 8:31 left, the Utes built a 36-25 lead with 4:04 left before halftime on a blitz that featured speed and outside shooting.
Miller had four points, among them a driving layup on a Wildcat eight inches taller, Jamaal Magloire. Center Doleac hit a three-pointer and Jensen had two layups and a foul shot by beating Kentucky downcourt after quick outlet passes after defensive rebounds.
In the first half, Utah had a 24-6 rebound advantage, with Mottola grabbing one more rebound himself than all the Wildcats combined. Nine offensive rebounds led to putbacks that helped the Utes make 57 percent of their first-half shots. Kentucky had three more shots the first half, but was 0 for 6 on three-pointers.
From that 11-point deficit, the Wildcats scratched back before halftime. But Johnson and Hansen scored the final four points, on medium-range jumpers, and Utah charged into the dressing room with a 41-31 lead.
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