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Final Four Memories

1998 NCAA Men's Tournament

  NCAA Title Gets an Old Kentucky Home

By J.A. Adande
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 2, 1996

It is a blessing and a difficult burden, this task of being the best men's college basketball team in the country. That was the title placed upon Kentucky before the season and a challenge the Wildcats lived up to in the NCAA championship tonight.

The pressure showed on their faces as they took the court against Syracuse at Continental Airlines Arena. But after 40 minutes of basketball and a season in which they won 34 of their 36 games, the Wildcats allowed themselves to bask in the cheers of their dedicated fans following their 76-67 victory.

The emotion on the players' faces after they won the school's first national championship since 1978 (and the first of Coach Rick Pitino's career) didn't look like elation. It looked more like relief.

"It is," said senior guard Tony Delk. "The pressure started October 15, when this team was assembled."

It was a highly skilled, fast team, and -- more than anything else -- a deep team. That showed tonight when freshman Ron Mercer, who was seventh on the team in minutes played this season and the sixth-leading scorer with an average of 7.6 points per game, exploded for a career-high 20 points.

Syracuse, by contrast, got 29 points and 10 rebounds from senior forward John Wallace but zero points from its reserves.

"I normally look to pass, but today I looked to score," Mercer said. "I missed my first two shots, but after that, they started falling. I kept looking, kept looking and they kept falling.

"It's a great feeling. Everybody came out with the intensity that we're not going to leave anything on the court. And that's the same intensity that I came out with."

Delk led the way with 24 points, and fittingly scored the final points on an open layup in the waning seconds. He tied a championship-game record by making seven three-pointers and was named the Final Four's outstanding player.

It was Kentucky's sixth national championship, second only to UCLA's 11, and this was a team worthy of its rich lineage.

Syracuse's surprising run to the final came up short, and the Orangemen (29-9) failed in their bid to become the first No. 4 seed to win a national championship.

If Kentucky's No. 1 seeding in the tournament's Midwest Region brought expectations, it also was a positive sign. Six of the past seven champions have been No. 1 seeds, with second-seeded Duke's victory in 1991 the only interruption. And after running to a 16-0 record in the Southeastern Conference, the Wildcats became the seventh consecutive conference regular season champion to win an NCAA championship.

The Orangemen weren't even the second- or third-place team in the Big East. But they succeeded where conference powerhouses Connecticut, Georgetown and Villanova failed by getting to the Final Four.

And they were within one game of bringing the Big East its first championship since Villanova beat Georgetown in 1985 -- and before tonight many thought it would be an upset of similar proportions if Syracuse managed to knock off the mighty Cats.

"We didn't have to play a perfect game, but we had to play a little bit better than we did," said Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, who team was made a 13 1/2-point underdog by oddsmakers.

"We played pretty well. We held them below 40 percent field goal shooting :38.4 percent:. We forced the ball out of the hands of key guys quite a few times."

But Kentucky also did a good job of keeping the ball out of Syracuse point guard Lazarus Sims's hands, especially in the first half.

Even when he did get the ball, the normally reliable Sims committed seven of Syracuse's 24 turnovers. The most critical came with just more than a minute to play, when Syracuse had the ball, trailing by five points.

Delk took the ball from Sims near halfcourt, but Sims was able to recover it when Delk, falling out of bounds, tried to throw it off of him.

Sims drove and Mark Pope deflected his pass and came up with the ball. Wallace committed his fifth personal foul trying to stop Pope. Wallace left with 1 minute 6 seconds remaining. Pope made the bonus free throws to put Kentucky ahead by seven.

It was Kentucky's most comfortable margin after the Wildcats nearly let a 13-point, second-half lead evaporate.

Kentucky missed 11 of 13 shots. Syracuse pulled to within two when Wallace made a pair of free throws with 4:46 remaining.

Delk tried a three-pointer that missed, but McCarty tipped it in. Jason Cipolla missed and Derek Anderson came down and hit a three-pointer that put the Wildcats ahead by seven.

Cipolla made his next shot, a fallaway jumper from the right side. Anthony Epps missed a three-pointer, but McCarty was on the offensive boards again. This time he saved the ball to Pope, who hit a jumper in the lane.

Walker was fouled and made one free throw and Kentucky led by eight with 2:25 to play.

Burgan made a three-pointer for Syracuse and Pope lost the ball on Kentucky's next possession. Pope then made his big play and led to Wallace fouling out.

"They took us down to the last minute," Mercer said. "They're a great team, and they didn't get here for nothing."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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