Finishing Touches


They should just keep playing this game, over and over again. Keep making staggering comebacks and stunning shots, back and forth between agony and perfection, two teams in one eternal rush to exhilaration.

Why? Because the greatest game ever had the greatest sequel ever, duplicating improbable emotions, enhancing improbable scenarios and lifting the NCAA tournament again to a state of grace.

On Sunday, in the South Regional final before 40,589 at Tropicana Field, No. 2-seeded Kentucky came back from a 17-point second-half deficit and broke a final-minute tie with Scott Padgett's mesmerizing three-point basket.

This time, a last-second heave by Duke freshman William Avery banked away, giving the Wildcats an 86-84 victory and their third consecutive Final Four berth.

Six years ago, also for a Final Four berth, Blue Devil forward Christian Laettner made a buzzer-beating jump shot after a three-quarter court pass to send Kentucky home, and Duke a giant step toward its second successive national title.

But Duke vs. Kentucky no longer is about making steps or national titles.

It's about held breaths and chills, about Kentucky's Jeff Sheppard forsaking the on-court celebration for a moment to console Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, about Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith's elderly parents beaming in the background of his news conference, about the state of Kentucky exaltingin relief, about winning under pressure and losing with dignity.

"I believe God puts us in special positions, and he put me in two of them with Kentucky," said Krzyzewski, who had never lost a regional final game, in seven tries. "One we won. One we lost. And I thank God He put me in both of them."

Smith, who took over the Wildcats this season from Rick Pitino, was typically low-key in the afterglow. But even he didn't deny that there were more powerful forces at work than merely two teams and 40 minutes of basketball.

"I know our players feel that they've been exonerated," Smith said. "That they've exorcised that 1992 loss to Duke."

With 9:38 to play, it didn't appear that Kentucky would even make this game dramatic.

Getting marvelous offensive balance and ball movement, No. 1-seeded Duke held a 71-54 lead, and the Wildcats were struggling to find a cohesive attack.

"They were getting every loose ball, every long rebound," Smith said. "I could feel our guys not necessarily giving up, but I could feel it slipping away.

"Being in a tough situation tends to bring out the negative in you. And it came out a little in me. But I was able to recover. I told the team we had enough talent to come back.

"The will to win just overcame."

Mostly, it came in the form of point guard Wayne Turner, who began to dominate the Duke defense with his dribble-drive and ended up as the regional's most valuable player.

With Smith going to a small, center-less lineup, Turner's penetration created open shots for Sheppard (who had a team-high 18 points and 11 rebounds), Heshimu Evans (14 points, 11 rebounds), Padgett (12 points, three three-point baskets) and Allen Edwards (11 points).

In a flash, as the Blue Devil offense dissipated into moments of disorder and one-on-one play, the Duke lead was only 71-63; in another blink, the Wildcats had closed it to one, 72-71, with six minutes to play, and the heavy Kentucky contingent thundered.

"If you went down their lineup individually, Turner, Sheppard, Padgett, they all made big plays," Krzyzewski said. "But it was Kentucky as a team that beat us. You can talk individuals, but collectively is their strength."

Even though Duke had called all of its timeouts with 5:16 to play, the Blue Devils did not collapse, even after Kentucky took its first lead of the game, 80-79, on Cameron Mills' three-pointer from the top of the key with 2:12 to play.

With 1:20 left, it was tied, 81-81. Heartbreak for somebody again.

After a Duke miss, Turner cut into the lane and dropped a pass back to Padgett, who fired from the top of the key.

"I caught it, put it up and, tell you the truth, once it left my hands I knew it was going in," said Padgett, who as a high school student in Kentucky had thrown a book at the TV when Laettner's shot went in six years ago.

Two possessions later, after McLeod made a three-pointer and Edwards made one of two free throws, Duke trailed by two points, with 4.5 seconds left, 94 feet from the basket.

Kentucky called successive 20-second timeouts to set its defense, and in the back of every Wildcat fans' mind was the long pass, the Laettner shot, the agony.

"We tried to get the guy in who might be able to throw it the farthest, which is Shane [Battier]," Krzyzewski said. "We wanted to see if we could throw it deep."

But deep was covered. So Battier made a short pass to Avery, who took off downcourt with Sheppard on his hip. Avery got about 35 feet from the basket, took a leap and shot it for the win.

"He did a good job of getting it up, and he can hit that kind of shot," Krzyzewski said. "When he took the shot, I thought he might hit it."

Said Kentucky Athletic Director C.M. Newton, whose verbal confidence might be belied by the fact that he did not bring himself to watch the shot: "I knew we were going to win. I knew it would be too tough of a shot."

The celebration began with an explosion of emotion from the Kentucky players, who had carefully denied a day earlier that they were playing to redeem a game that happened six years ago.

"I guess this might makeup for the '92 game," Padgett said.

Smith only smiled, while his players danced. And he saluted the Duke players with hugs and handshakes.

"We love our coach, and I think you saw two of the great class acts in college basketball," Sheppard said. "I think that's why you saw such a good game."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World