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Final Four Memories

1998 NCAA Men's Tournament

  Kentucky's Pressure Cooks Minnesota

By Anthony Cotton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 30, 1997; Page D1

INDIANAPOLIS, March 29 — Even Kentucky Coach Rick Pitino, who uses every possible tool to analyze his teams, can't understand it — can't understand how a team that lost six players from last season's squad and got knocked around by a bigger, more powerful Minnesota team tonight somehow finds itself on the verge of winning a second consecutive national championship.

Indeed, it seemed logical that an already short-handed Kentucky team would find itself in dire straits against the Golden Gophers, either depleted by foul trouble or pummeled into submission. Sure enough, by game's end, one Kentucky player fouled out, another two finished with four personals — and all-American forward Ron Mercer was more than a little woozy after getting body-slammed to the floor late in the second half.

But the Wildcats were once again on the verge of the game's biggest prize following a bruising 78-69 victory at RCA Dome that sent them into Monday night's title matchup against Arizona.

Kentucky might need every bit of the next 48 hours to completely recover from the beating it took from Minnesota. The Golden Gophers have spent the entire season building a reputation as perhaps the nation's most physical team and more than lived up to that billing tonight. The Gophers could have lost by 20 points after committing 26 turnovers, but they remained in the contest by working the backboards to a 48-34 advantage.

But no matter how many times they were staggered, the Wildcats (35-5) were never floored. Maintaining their poise, the Wildcats scored their own technical knockout with an impressive 24-15 flurry in the final nine minutes after Minnesota (31-4) rallied to tie the game at 54.

"We're not last year's team, but I've never coached a team with as much heart," Rick Pitino said of a squad that injuries have whittled down to eight scholarship players. "We've now played five Big Ten schools, three Big East schools and two from the [Atlantic Coast Conference]; we've beaten two teams in the top five [Utah and Minnesota] to get to the championship game. I'm blown away by these guys — I don't know how they do it."

Mercer scored 19 points to lead Kentucky, while guard Bobby Jackson had 23 for Minnesota, which saw two of its players foul out.

There was a delicious sense of closure for the Wildcats, who began this season with a 79-71 overtime loss to Clemson here in November. As was the case then, Interstate 65 was filled with a caravan of automobiles heading north from Lexington for this big game.

However, the raucous welcome given to Kentucky when it took the court was more than matched by the Minnesota fans. The dueling cheering sections added an electricity to the nightcap that was missing during the semifinal between Arizona and North Carolina. That rivalry even extended into a heated one-on-one pregame matchup — between the teams' mascots — that had their respective fans booing and cheering as if the championship trophy would be awarded to the winner.

While Minnesota's power — 14 of its 27 field goals came on dunks, layups or offensive rebounds — kept it in the game, the Gophers may have overdone it during a crucial stretch of the second half.

Minnesota trailed 36-31 at halftime after committing 15 turnovers but used two layups and a tip-in to close to 45-43 with 16:59 remaining. Over the next 1:28, though, the Gophers were whistled for four personal fouls — he fourth an offensive foul on forward Courtney James that erased a basket. Literally hopping mad, Minnesota Coach Clem Haskins leaped in front of his bench and flung his jacket along the sideline after drawing a technical foul for complaining about the call.

"That was a big part of the game," said James, sporting a tattoo of a growling canine with the words "Court Dawg" on his left biceps. "Coach doesn't get technical fouls just for the hell of it—only if it was an awful call."

Although Kentucky guard Derek Anderson—playing in his first game of the NCAA tournament after being injured Jan. 18 — hit the two free throws after the technical and Mercer added a jumper immediately afterwards, James thought the Gophers were still in the contest. And Minnesota scored the next nine points — seven of them by Jackson—to take the lead with just under 11 minutes left.

Two minutes later the game was tied at 54 and attrition became an issue. But Kentucky scored 11 of the next 13 points to regain control. Minnesota came back with a 7-2 spurt, but the effort took too much out of the Gophers. Kentucky ended the game by making eight of 10 free throws.

"I've never coached against a more physically and mentally tough team than Minnesota," said Pitino. "They get up in your pants and challenge you — but I just have tremendous admiration for my team, which overcame a lot just to win this game."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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