Monday, March 15, 1999

UK in March: Been there, won that




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NEW ORLEANS — They are not champions by coincidence. They have been there and done that and cut down the nets so many times it might be wise to send out the scissors for sharpening.

        The Kentucky Wildcats will not go quietly, if they go at all. They will battle to the buzzer, scratching and clawing, boxing out and clogging the passing lanes. They are not as good as they were a year ago, but they are every bit as gritty.

        Duke is better. No one is tougher.

        This was the inescapable conclusion of Sunday's 92-88 overtime epic victory over Kansas. Five points down with 68 seconds to play in regulation, the Wildcats improbably persevered to force an extra period.

        A game that should have been lost was somehow salvaged. A season that should have been over has been extended to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16. In the heat of the moment, Kentucky simply would not wilt, and consequently advanced to a Friday night meeting with Miami University in St. Louis.

        A fourth straight Final Four trip is still possible. Perhaps probable.

        “We weren't ready to go home,” UK senior Scott Padgett said Sunday evening at the Superdome. “We feel like we've got something to defend here. We want to end our careers on a high note. We just willed ourselves to a win.”

        Padgett was primarily responsible. The resourceful forward scored 29 points against Kansas, most notably a three-point shot that tied the game with 20 seconds remaining in regulation. There was some luck involved in the opportunity — the shot was the product of a loose ball retrieved following a Wayne Turner miss — but Padgett's execution bespoke experience and cool. He had the patience to fake a defender running his way and the presence of mind to dribble backward to the three-point stripe before launching his shot.

        Experience means never having to say you're hurried.

        “I'm usually more concerned than the players,” UK coach Tubby Smith confessed. “Throughout my career and this year, it definitely helps when you have veteran players to turn to. They lead by example. They're poised and focused and I listen to them.”

        “I think a lot of teams would fold in that situation,” Padgett said of UK's predicament. “But we've been in that situation before. . .We kept our composure, came down and got the shots we wanted instead of just taking any shots.”

        Mainly, the 'Cats wanted penetration from point guard Wayne Turner and power from Padgett and Heshimu Evans. Kansas countered with the exquisite perimeter shooting of Ryan Robertson and Jeff Boschee. The Wildcats would lead by as many as seven points in the second half, but the Jayhawks stubbornly refused to concede defeat.

        “I think they wanted to show us what Kansas basketball is really about,” Turner said. “They showed us that they weren't going to back down. I went up to Boschee and said, "You guys never say die, do you all?' ”

        There was admiration in Turner's voice as he recounted the conversation. Sunday's game enabled Turner to surpass Christian Laettner's NCAA record of 148 games played, and he may never have been in a better one.

        After Turner made two free throws to give Kentucky a one-point lead with 2:40 to play in regulation, Robertson and Boschee both made three-pointers to give Kansas its five-point lead. So Turner retaliated by getting himself fouled again, and making two more free throws.

        “We weren't panicking,” Turner said. “We practice these situations so much, we knew it was not impossible with a minute left to cut into their lead or tie the game up.”

        Where Kentucky is concerned, all things are possible.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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