Kentucky Is Too Cool for U-Mass.
By J.A. Adande
They had blown out teams by 24 points a game while going undefeated in Southeastern Conference play. They had romped through the NCAA men's basketball tournament by an average of 28.3 points. But now, a 13-point lead they enjoyed midway through the second half of their national semifinal against top-ranked Massachusetts had been cut to three, and leading scorer Tony Delk had gone to the bench with leg cramps.
The Wildcats answered with an 81-74 victory at Continental Airlines Arena and this mild understatement from forward Antoine Walker: "I guess we handled it well."
Now Coach Rick Pitino, who had lost his previous two Final Four games (with Providence in 1987 and Kentucky in 1993) will have one game to answer the biggest question of his career: Can he win the championship? After beating the man he helped obtain the U-Mass. coaching job, John Calipari, Pitino will play his one-time mentor at Syracuse and the coach who beat him in the 1987 national semifinals, Jim Boeheim, in the final Monday night.
Delk, who came out with 4 minutes 4 seconds remaining and the Wildcats (33-2) leading by five points, returned with 1:49 to play and made a layup that gave Kentucky a nine-point lead with 27 seconds remaining and him a team-high 20 points. Walker scored 14. Guard Jeff Sheppard, who came in for Delk, scored three of his seven points late in the game.
Massachusetts got 25 points, 8 rebounds and a Final Four record-tying 6 blocked shots from center Marcus Camby, plus 15 points from forward Donta Bright. Guard Edgar Padilla, who played almost the entire game against Kentucky's pressing defense, had 12 assists, 6 points and 5 turnovers.
After Kentucky seemed to weather a U-Mass. run and restore its lead to 10 points, Camby sank a high-arching jumper that beat the shot clock buzzer, then drained a jumper and free throw with 6:18 left. All of a sudden the Minutemen trailed by only five.
The longer the game stayed close, the more it seemed to sway in their favor. After all, they were the ones who had won four overtime games and nine games decided by five points or less, while Kentucky had only played one game decided by less than 10 points (an 89-82 victory over Indiana on Dec. 2).
When Bright tipped in a miss by Dana Dingle, Kentucky's lead had dwindled to three with 4:59 remaining. Would the Wildcats feel the pressure? It looked that way at first, as Derek Anderson missed the front end of a one-and-one. But center Mark Pope made two free throws to restore the lead to 65-60.
A free throw by Walker made it 66-60. Walker and Pope double-teamed Camby and took the ball from him and Walker passed downcourt to give Sheppard a dunk.
Camby was fouled and made one free throw. Massachusetts got the rebound and Travieso missed a jumper. Bright picked up his fifth foul with 2:42 remaining. Sheppard made the front end of a one-and-one, then missed the second. Kentucky got the rebound, Walker was fouled and made both free throws to give Kentucky a margin it was more comfortable with -- 10 points.
But U-Mass. went at it again. Camby scored inside and the U-Mass. guards stripped the ball from Sheppard. Padilla zipped a pass underneath to his brother, Giddel, for a layup that brought the Minutemen within six.
Kentucky committed a turnover, Camby made two free throws and Kentucky committed another turnover when Anderson lost his dribble out of bounds against U-Mass. pressure. But U-Mass. couldn't convert, and Anderson earned a little redemption by making a pair of free throws for a 73-67 lead.
Edgar Padilla drilled a three-pointer for 73-70, but Pope made two free throws and Edgar Padilla's three-point try from the top of the key rattled the rim and came out. Anderson grabbed the rebound and passed downcourt to Walker, who was alone for the dunk. But he and the Wildcats knew better than to celebrate. Even as they raced back, Giddel Padilla weaved through them for a layup that came out, and the ball was knocked out of bounds to Kentucky.
Delk made a layup and the Wildcats led 79-70 with 27.1 seconds remaining.
"I think everybody's written about and talked about the character of U-Mass. and how tough these guys are," Pope said. "I don't think you can expect to blow a team :out: that's as tough and with as many good players as they have -- you can't blow them out. They're too strong, they're too poised and too tough. We understood it was going to be a 40-minute game, and we were fortunate to get out with the victory."
"I'm proud of our ballclub," Pitino said. "But as an alumnus of that school, I can't say enough about them. Ninety-nine percent go under with the pressure we were applying."
The Minutemen (35-2) didn't wilt. They didn't allow Kentucky to dictate the tempo of the game. (The Wildcats took only nine three-point shots, making three.) But they couldn't quite hold true to their "Refuse to Lose" motto against a deeper Kentucky team.
"We never stopped playing," Calipari said. "We played right down to the end. And I'm proud of them."
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company