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Rally ‘Cats Are Kings

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They had a lot of reasons to know they were coming back, but the loudest and best was right in front of the Kentucky Wildcats, yelling, cajoling, imploring . . .

Shepparding them to a national title.

No team had come back from more than an eight-point halftime deficit, and Kentucky was down by 10 to the undeniable, unquenchable Utah Utes. But Jeff Sheppard was not listening to history.

Kentucky was listening to him.

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“Shep was telling us, he kept telling us: ‘They’re getting tired! We want to win this more than they do!”’ senior swingman Allen Edwards said. “He saw it first out of all of us.”

Sheppard, the redshirt senior guard who was a reserve on the 1996 championship team, was not the Wildcats’ best player in Monday night’s 78-69 national-title victory over the Utes at the Alamodome.

He was not the fastest or flashiest Wildcat.

But he barked the loudest, he ran the hardest, and his play was, as usual, the explosive device that tilted the floor Kentucky’s way and buried the opponent under the rubble.

Even though Heshimu Evans started Kentucky’s comeback, even though Cameron Mills’ two three-point baskets were gigantic parts of the victory, Sheppard was voted the most outstanding player of the Final Four, and Sheppard was the one who merited it.

“He deserved it,” Kentucky center Nazr Mohammed said of Sheppard. “He’s our leader. He played a great game against Stanford. He played a good game tonight. Absolutely, he deserved it.”

More than anything, the vote was a testament to Kentucky’s staggering array of weapons, its balance--and its will.

The Wildcats (35-4) came back from double-digit, second-half deficits in their last three victories, and came back differently each time.

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Against Duke in the South Regional final, it was a rush of points, turnovers and emotion. Against Stanford on Saturday, it was Sheppard putting the Wildcats on his shoulders with a career-high 27 points.

“I think against Duke, we got them playing our tempo,” junior point guard Wayne Turner said. “Against Utah, they play so patiently, we had to do it slowly, and finally we got the lead back. Then we had to make sure they didn’t come right back at us.”

Against Utah on Monday, it was, as it needed to be against such a well-schooled team, gradual. Incremental. And unstoppable as the tide.

You can deny Kentucky for minutes and for maybe a half or more, but you cannot deny the likes of Sheppard, Mohammed and Edwards for a whole game or deny them a title.

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“You don’t have to be flashy, you have to be fundamental,” said Sheppard, who scored 16 points--12 in the final 10 minutes--and was a key part of the Kentucky defense that harried star Utah point guard Andre Miller into exhaustion.

“That’s what Coach [Tubby Smith] taught us this year and look at what it got us.”

Look at what they did to Miller, who had almost single-handedly ripped apart Arizona and North Carolina in the Utes’ last two glorious upsets.

With Sheppard, Turner, Evans, and Saul Smith all taking turns against Miller, the Utah point guard committed eight turnovers, missed several makable shots, and generally performed like someone who had run into a wall.

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Under Smith, the Wildcats haven’t found a wall yet they can’t vault.

“We never got rattled when they were making their runs,” Turner said. “We kept our heads up. We knew we were going to get back into the game.

“And I think when we made our run, they got rattled a little. I saw it in Miller’s eyes--he was a little worried, he wasn’t doing as much.”

In Sheppard’s eyes, there was only fire.

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As usual, Sheppard--who voluntarily sat out his third year at Kentucky because he knew playing time would be limited behind Ron Mercer and Derek Anderson--spent most of his time deflecting the credit to his teammates. As usual, they felt no need to spare the praise of him.

With 12 minutes left in the game, and Utah ahead, 54-48, Sheppard took one of his flights to the basket, missed a runner, then was up in the air before anybody else could get the rebound, and tipped it in.

Then, after Mills’ first three-pointer tied the score at 58, with 7:46 left, Sheppard cut in front of a Hanno Mottola pass and was gone, soaring for a slam dunk that gave Kentucky its first lead of the second half.

Finally, after a quick Utah counter-attack, Sheppard gave the Wildcats the lead for good, 65-64, with 4:54 remaining, on a short pull-up jump shot.

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“He’s been our go-to guy all tournament long,” Turner said of Sheppard. “He showed that against Stanford, he showed that tonight--he steps up and takes the big shots.

“At the end of this game, he wasn’t scared to take the shots. He never is.”


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