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1998 NCAA Men's Tournament

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Check out our Final Four memories section.

  A March to Greatness Caps a March of Greatness

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 31, 1998; Page C6

 Under Tubby Smith's tutelage, Kentucky rolled to its third consecutive Final Four. (Eric Draper/AP)
SAN ANTONIO, March 30 — The Kentucky Wildcats were both the favorites and unexpected national champion contenders when they stepped on the floor of the Alamodome tonight to meet Utah in the NCAA title game. Led by a first-year coach, and headlined by no one, the comeback kids from Lexington raced to a 78-69 victory over the suddenly famous Utes from Utah to capture their seventh national title in a tournament that will be remembered for both the surprising and the sublime.

After the final buzzer sounded, the fans from a state long ago famous for its all-white basketball teams shouted "Tubby, Tubby, Tubby," over and over again, in honor of Orlando "Tubby" Smith, the first black to serve as head coach at Kentucky. And, as they chanted, Cameron Mills, a Kentucky kid, born and bred, gracefully embraced losing coach Rick Majerus before falling prostrate on the Alamodome floor. There he lay, his head buried in his elbow, his hands clasped in prayer, as he bid an emotional end to an amazing three weeks of March basketball that riveted fans nationwide in a way it never had before.

This was a March that made heroes out of Homer and Bryce Drew, the father-son team from Valparaiso, Ind., who led their unknown Valparaiso University team through two rounds and into the Midwest regional semifinals before succumbing to Rhode Island. It was a March that turned terribly painful for several of the nation's most prominent programs — Kansas, Arizona, Duke — who failed to live up to expectations that they would make the Final Four.

It was a March for those with the wacky, upset-hopeful office pools to gloat as they walked down the hallways on Monday mornings, while the statistic-crunching, rankings-obsessed mega-fans cowered behind their desks.

It was a March that made a superstar out of a 6-foot-11, 265-pound player named Michael Doleac, a player who should have been a household name long before this tournament — he is one of the best big men in the country — but was barely recognized outside the Western Athletic Conference.

Doleac scored 15 points and pulled down 10 rebounds in his team's impressive, but unsuccessful, effort tonight. And all this came five years after a big, awkward, blond-headed kid from Alaska — via high school in Portland, Ore. — stood dumbfounded when Majerus offered him the scholarship of which he had never even dared dream. A bench player who barely made the varsity his junior season in high school, Doleac is now a sure NBA lottery pick.

Like so many teams in this tournament — Valparaiso, Stanford, Rhode Island — these two programs were quick to capture our fancy with the personal paths their players, and coaches, took to this unexpected championship meeting. Utah's Andre Miller has been asked time and time again why a player like him — a black kid from Los Angeles — would choose to play ball in Utah. Usually, he smiles and thanks Majerus for believing in him when others looked as his less-than-impressive SAT scores and then turned away.

This tournament, Miller rewarded Majerus's faith with a triple-double in Utah's win over Arizona in the West regional final, and with a drive down the lane in tonight's game that made jaws drop (he blew off four defenders) and put the Utes ahead, 62-60, in a game that had suddenly turned red-hot.

Utah led much of this game, scaring the life out of Kentucky, which had to make a third straight second-half, double-digit comeback to capture the championship that its rabid fans all but demanded once they heard that the opponent was going to be underestimated and unappreciated Utah. Unlike the Utes, the Wildcats have been here before — been here three seasons in a row, to be precise. They won the national title in 1996, and finished as a runner-up to Arizona in Indianapolis last spring.

This March, though, they arrived with a new mentor, Smith, who grew up in Scotland, Md., as one of 17 children and realized a dream when he took over the Kentucky program from popular coach Rick Pitino this past fall. Tonight, Pitino was expected to watch this game at a friend's condominium in Miami Beach, where he is preparing his Boston Celtics for a game against the Miami Heat. He was remembered, but not missed.

Under Smith's tutelage, Kentucky rolled into its third straight Final Four with an assemblage of players that one Kentucky-based newspaper columnist has dubbed "The Indecipherables" for their lack of a bona fide star and for their unpredictable season.

Smith may have walked into one of the most high-pressure, high-expectation coaching jobs in the nation, but there were few who actually believed that he would achieve a national title his first time around.

This is a team built around players such as Mills, the one-time walk-on whose three-point shot with a little under eight minutes remaining tied this game at 58 for the first time since the game was 13-13. Mills is the son of Kentucky player, raised on Kentucky basketball, who bled blue when he was told that the program would not offer him a scholarship — then decided to show up anyway. Four years after his first day of practice, a day when he literally threw up after trying to complete the weight program, he has been guaranteed that his name will be a part of Kentucky's long and distinguished basketball lore.

And he will be joined there by teammate Scott Padgett, a junior who flunked out of school his freshman year after operating on a schedule that he describes as follows:

"Sleep. Practice. Sleep. Lunch. Sleep. Meetings. Sleep. Class. Okay — maybe class once a week. Sleep. Dinner. Out until 3 a.m. with the buddies. Sleep. Repeat."

Tonight, Padgett led the Wildcats with 17 points and grabbed five rebounds. Oh, and last month he was named to the all-Southeastern Conference academic honor roll for amassing a 3.44 grade-point average with a major in social work. Jeff Sheppard, who willingly redshirted last season when the coaching staff told him it was for both his own good and that of the team, scored 16 and was named the Final Four's most outstanding player.

Sheppard and Padgett, roommates and close friends, took turns picking each other up and hugging each other on the center of the Alamodome floor this evening — at least until they found the man they wanted to hug most of all. That man was Smith, the coach who walked into one of the most difficult college coaching jobs in the country and earned the respect of his team, his new state, and, this March, much of the nation as well.

"He taught us first to be men," Sheppard said of Smith, his voice filled with emotion, "and to play basketball second."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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