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Rally ‘Cats Are Kings

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kentucky is the bluest of the basketball bluebloods, but not this bunch. They weren’t born to royalty.

They came from nothing, some of them, and together these Wildcats fought from behind like no team ever had to win Kentucky’s seventh national championship, beating Utah, 78-69, in front of 40,509 Monday night at the Alamodome.

It was Kentucky’s second national title in three years, but its least expected.

No team had won the championship game after trailing by 10 points at halftime, and Utah led Kentucky, 41-31, after 20 minutes.

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It was not so daunting a task for Kentucky, which has won 1,720 games, more than any team in the history of college basketball, but which had to come from 17 points down to beat Duke, 10 down to beat Stanford in overtime and 12 down against Utah.

“Against Duke, we could have folded and said, ‘We’ll get ‘em next year,’ ” said Cameron Mills, a former walk-on who hit two huge three-point shots, one to tie the score, 58-58, with less than eight minutes left.

“Stanford was the same thing. And today,” Mills said. “But I think we had a little more confidence after the last two games that we could come from behind. We had a lot of experience pulling out these kinds of wins.

“I don’t know what it was, but this team didn’t ever give up easy.”

It’s a team that knew how to pull itself up by its bootstraps.

Coach Tubby Smith, one of 17 children from a family in rural Maryland, was hired after last season as the first black men’s basketball coach at Kentucky, and Monday night he became the first coach to win the national championship in his first season since Steve Fisher at Michigan in 1989.

“This program is more than just a basketball program. It’s really a way of life, and people do live and breathe Kentucky basketball,” said Smith, who was screaming out thanks to his little town of Scotland, Md., in the celebration. “I’m just happy to be a small part of it.”

Even in defeat, so was Utah (30-4), the team that showed the world there is basketball played in the Rocky Mountains. But the Utes wore down.

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The inside shots Michael Doleac worked so hard for banged off the rim, his legs and arms weary from the defense of Jamaal Magloire.

After scoring 12 points in the first half, Doleac didn’t have a field goal in the second and finished with 15 points.

Andre Miller’s brilliant drives ended with layups failing to fall, and he finished with 16 points, six rebounds, five assists and an uncharacteristic eight turnovers.

Kentucky (35-4) kept pushing and scraping and finally turned a disaster into a triumph. Utah’s defense shut out Kentucky from long range for the entire first half, but the Wildcats came back in the second and made five three-point baskets and shot 58% in the half, pushing their percentage for the game to 51%. Kentucky was the only team all season to top 50% against the Utes.

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With Kentucky behind, 47-37, less than five minutes into the second half, reserve forward Heshimu Evans started the ferocious run that helped his teammates believe again.

Evans hit a three-point shot to cut the deficit to seven points, and after Utah’s Hanno Mottola answered with a three-pointer, Evans answered again.

Mottola charged on the other end, and then Evans struck back with a slashing layup, and the lead was only five points.

Utah’s struggles to score had begun, and Kentucky’s outside shooting finally had come alive.

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With Utah still leading, 58-55, Mottola missed a three-point shot badly, hitting the side of the backboard, and on the other end, he found Mills open on the baseline.

Three-pointer, tie game.

Kentucky took the lead, 60-58, on Sheppard’s breakaway dunk with 7:12 left, and even though Utah came back briefly, the die was cast.

With just under five minutes to play, Kentucky guard Wayne Turner pushed the ball upcourt and gave it to Sheppard, who stopped and popped a jump shot for a 65-64 lead Kentucky never gave up.

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Utah went dry, and Kentucky made 11 of 12 free throws down the stretch, with Evans making one more monster play, blocking Miller’s three-point shot with 45 seconds left and the lead only four.

“We lost to a terrific team,” said Utah Coach Rick Majerus, who maybe now will be known for his mind instead of his middle, his brain instead of his belly. “Kentucky made some difficult shots, and I applaud them. I thought we had a hand up on those shots, but they made them.

“We take our hats off to Kentucky. They whupped us and they’re No. 1. I think our kids are 1-A, and I hope they’ll always remember being No. 2 because they came so far.”

It was much the same for Kentucky, a team so marked by images of struggles.

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Sheppard, the most outstanding player of the Final Four, agreed to sit out last season while Kentucky made a national-championship run and lost in the final to Arizona. He came back this season and led the Wildcats to a title.

“We came so close last year,” said Sheppard, who scored 16 points, 12 in the second half. “There are not too many times you get to go back to the championship game three years in a row. When we missed out on it last year, I thought I might have missed my opportunity, even though at Kentucky you feel like you always have a chance of winning.”

Scott Padgett flunked out of school but made it back.

Center Nazr Mohammed had to shed 60 pounds to become a player.

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Evans transferred from St. John’s.

Guard Allen Edwards lost his mother just before the tournament, and played with her always in mind.

Mills had to walk on at Kentucky, even though his father played for Adolph Rupp, but he’s a Kentucky boy who raised seven fingers to the crowd after collapsing to the floor in emotion.

Only UCLA has won more titles than seven, with 11.

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Kentucky won national championships in 1948, ’49, ’51, ’58, ’78 and ’96.

And, now, ’98.


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