Kentucky 76, Syracuse 67
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) _ Every year something always happened to break Kentucky’s heart.
_ Duke’s Christian Laettner making an improbable shot from the top of the key in a 1992 regional final.
_ Sam Bowie and Melvin Turpin throwing up one brick after another in the 1984 Final Four.
_ Jamal Mashburn fouling out in overtime against Michigan and the Fab Five in the 1993 Final Four.
It was a rite of spring, watching the Wildcats buckle under the cumbersome expectations of an entire state. The school of Adolph Rupp and Joe B. Hall, of Dan Issel and Kenny Walker, had won a grand total of one national championship since 1958.
Make it two.
Reclaiming the blueblood status demanded by the fans of the bluegrass state, Kentucky won its first NCAA title since 1978 Monday night, beating Syracuse 76-67.
``I think this puts (our program) back on the map as a powerhouse,″ guard Allen Edwards said.
Not that the Wildcats had exactly fallen from prominence. Over the past decade, three seasons ended in the regional finals, another lasted until the Final Four. Still, what is considered success at some schools became a legacy of failure at Kentucky.
``In these later years, I’ve learned to expect defeat,″ said Woodson Reynolds, a fan watching on television back home and barometer of the state’s championship-or-nothing mentality.
``But I haven’t ever had expectations like this for a team,″ he added, savoring the sixth title in school history. ``I’ve followed (Kentucky) since the 1950s, and I told my son after the first game this season, `This is the best Kentucky team I’ve ever seen.‴
Rick Pitino knew he had something special at the beginning of the season, too. The coach who rebuilt the Wildcats from the ravages of probation in the late 1980s embraced the pressure and the expectations, tempted the possibility of yet another bitter defeat for his players and staff.
``Every fan they see on campus says, `Win it all, win it all, win it all.′ I wanted the pressure to be a vehicle,″ Pitino said. ``I really haven’t had a moment to feel elated, to feel good, because I just tried to make it good pressure and just work as hard as I possibly can and make that the focal point until the last buzzer sounds.
``And now I feel great.″
Senior guard Tony Delk scored 24 points and tied a championship game record with seven 3-pointers in his Kentucky finale. He’ll pass the torch to freshman swingman Ron Mercer, who scored a career-high 20 points and gave a tantalizing glimpse of his potential.
``Of the other schools I had on my list, Kentucky was the only one that really had a chance in the next two years to compete for the national championship,″ said Mercer, considered the best high school player in the country last year. ``I figured I could go in there and learn from the seniors.″
Mercer learned how a team can shoot only 38 percent and still capture a championship _ the lowest percentage for a winning team in the final in 33 years.
Pitino kept telling his players during the timeouts, ``It doesn’t matter what you do offensively, you’re going to win it at the defensive end.″
The Wildcats unleashed their trademark pressure defense and forced Syracuse into 24 turnovers, 18 more than the Orangemen had in a semifinal victory over Mississippi State. They attacked the offensive boards with ferocity and held an 18-8 edge in that category. Their bench, the deepest bench in the country, outscored Syracuse’s 26-0.
``We probably missed 15 shots right around 10 feet,″ Pitino said. ``But we were very good with our ball movement. We had 22 assists. And when you can shoot 38 percent for the game and win, you know you’re a great defensive team.″
Kentucky also has a great tradition, beginning with the sport’s winningest coach. Rupp won 876 games and lost 190 over 42 seasons, including four national titles from 1948 to 1958. Overall, the Wildcats have won 1,649 games _ two more than North Carolina _ and the six titles are second only to UCLA’s 11.
Syracuse (29-9), on the other hand, has the most NCAA tournament victories without a title. A 36th NCAA win would have meant a first national championship. Now, this team joins the one-point losers to Indiana in the 1987 championship game in sustaining the most bitter defeats in school history.
``We were so close to the championship,″ Marius Janulis said. ``We had a chance. We were battling back and battling back, and it just slipped away.″
The Orangemen, a 14-point underdog, fell behind 59-46 on Delk’s four-point play with 11 minutes remaining, then came up with a 16-5 run to get within 64-62 on John Wallace’s two free throws with 4:46 remaining.
But when Wallace, who scored 29 points, fouled out with 1:06 remaining, Syracuse was done.
``I think we played very good and we should have won the game,″ said Wallace, a senior who returned to school rather than enter the NBA last year. ``Personally, I think we got a couple of bad calls ... but calls are irreversible.″
Led by Delk, who was 6-of-7 from beyond the 3-point stripe in the first half, Kentucky went on to tie a championship game record with 12 3s _ a critical weapon in cracking Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense.
``I’m proud of my guys,″ Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. ``They came back. My kids had so much heart all year and in this tournament, and I think they gained respect.″
But in the end, Kentucky’s tradition won out. Finally.