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1998 NCAA Men's Tournament

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Columnists' Corner

  Wildcats Are Stars Without One

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, March 31, 1998; Page C1

Michael Wilbon SAN ANTONIO — Why should the final game have been any different from all that preceded it? Why shouldn't this NCAA championship game have come down, so appropriately, to a final eight minutes full of lead changes, dramatic shots, pressure free throws and soaring blocks?

To get their seventh NCAA basketball championship, the Kentucky Wildcats had to pull off their third straight, second-half, double-digit comeback. And this one came against a bigger, stronger, more talented opponent than most people wanted to acknowledge.

This is one of the few Kentucky basketball teams that is completely without a star player. But Coach Tubby Smith convinced the players many games ago they don't need one. So the Wildcats calmly got huge contributions from reluctant shooter Cameron Mills, backup center Jamaal Magloire and sixth-leading scorer Heshimu Evans. It added up the way it has all season, to a Kentucky victory, 78-69, at the Alamodome over Utah, which for most of the game looked more like the Big Bad Wolf than Cinderella.

A nearly six-minute scoreless stretch undid everything Utah had put together during the first 31 minutes. If this was boxing, the Utes couldn't have lost on points. They owned the early rounds.

But Kentucky, as Duke and Stanford found out previously, is one great counterpuncher coming off the ropes.

What Smith needed more than anything was for his team simply to hang in there for the first 30 minutes. Utah got so far ahead of Arizona and North Carolina, the Utes were in a comfort zone for most of the second half while their opponents were somewhat panicked.

When the Utes extended their lead to a dozen points over Kentucky early in the second half, it looked as if the championship game might follow the same script as Utah's previous victories.

That's when Evans, a 32 percent three-point shooter, quickly ran off eight points, including two three-pointers, to reduce a 45-33 Utah lead to 50-45. It was also Evans, a 6-foot-6 junior from the Bronx, N.Y., (and a transfer from Manhattan) who came out to challenge Andre Miller's three-point attempt with Kentucky clinging to a 70-66 lead.

Instead of just making Miller take a tougher shot, Evans blocked it. And the Wildcats prolonged Utah's scoring drought, choking off any chance Utah had of winning a game it had controlled for so long.

Having trailed in its previous two games, Kentucky seemed to have its comeback thing down pat. Even when the Wildcats were behind by double digits, Smith didn't call a bunch of timeouts when most coaches would have. He had faith his kids could play their way back, and they seemed to appreciate the confidence he had. As a result, Smith had more timeouts at the end to work with than the team that had led for most of the game.

Kentucky's resourcefulness and Utah's fatigue seemed to determine the outcome in the end. That the Wildcats could be so dominated early and adjust so dramatically late said volumes about Kentucky, and about how good a team Utah is.

The notion that Utah was some big underdog is the most preposterous thing imaginable. We're talking about a team that opened the season by winning a school-record 18 straight games. The Utes didn't lose a game until Feb. 1. In fact, they were undefeated longer than any other team in the nation this season. They entered Monday night's game 30-3, and the three losses were by a total of 12 points — and all were on the road. Kentucky was ranked No. 5 in most of the final regular season polls; Utah was No. 7 in those same polls.

A seventh-ranked team is now Cinderella? If you go simply by the talent and leave stupid cultural misperceptions out of the mix, Utah easily could have been the favorite coming into this game.

Utah's Michael Doleac, 6-11 and 265 pounds of rock, could very well be the first player selected in the NBA draft. Utah's 6-10 Hanno Mottola, a quick, airborne, sharpshooting sophomore with attitude, was probably the best pure athlete on the floor in the title game, as evidenced by the soaring tip-in he made to put the Utes ahead 17-13 in the early going.

And while Miller doesn't have the radar jump shot of Kentucky's Jeff Sheppard, Miller has a better all-around game and can force his way to the basket against bigger opponents. How many Cinderellas have a guard who can get a triple-double against the defending national champion, as Miller did against Arizona in the West Region final?

If you get the feeling this is upsetting me big-time, it is. Perpetuating these myths, that any team with white players or unpublicized black players is a "Cinderella," is no different from what Reggie White did last week in his misguided speech in Wisconsin.

This ignorance has taken such root that we've now got a nation of people sitting around saying, "Oh my God, white people winning basketball games! It's like a fairy tale!"

It's not a fairy tale. Guess which school led the entire nation — all 307 teams — in rebounding margin?

Utah.

Cinderella doesn't out-rebound you 24-6 in a half, which is what Utah did to Kentucky. I didn't know you could rebound in glass slippers.

You can't run in glass slippers either, so I don't know how Utah high-tailed it down the floor for eight straight fast-break points to lift off to a 34-23 lead.

But the Utes needed a much bigger lead than that against this Kentucky team, and they appeared too tired to build one. Freshman Britton Johnsen said he was so anxious Sunday night he couldn't sleep. "I was dead tired down the stretch," he admitted. Kentucky held Doleac to three measly points the second half. Miller had some truly dazzling drives, the stuff that makes NBA scouts salivate. But he was just a bit too tired to finish the plays. Three times in the final three minutes he negotiated the taller Kentucky forwards successfully, only to have a twisting layup roll off the rim. Any one of those baskets might have changed the game's complexion.

Meanwhile, Kentucky seemed to have plenty of energy, plenty of bounce for those final minutes. Perhaps it was knowing the Wildcats had lost so many players from Rick Pitino's championship team two years ago, and still more from Pitino's NCAA runner-up team last season, but found a way to get back to the championship game anyway. Maybe enough people didn't appreciate the team that really had the storybook season.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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