Saturday, March 20, 1999

Wally sweet, but Miami not elite

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ST. LOUIS — This is how it works in the real world. The wheels come off of Cinderella's carriage. The Wicked Stepmother wins.

        It would be nice to report that Wally Szczerbiak and the Miami RedHawks continued their improbable push through the NCAA Tournament, but Friday was a tough night for fantasy. The most surprising NCAA Tournament in memory reverted to form and four plucky longshots prepared to go home.

        Kentucky mauled Miami 58-43. Duke stomped Southwest Missouri State. Michigan State outlasted Oklahoma. Temple punished Purdue. The willing suspension of disbelief was drubbed by stark realism.

        Szczerbiak, transformed in a week's time from America's least-known superstar to Elvis, was again wondrous. There just wasn't enough of him to go around. For nearly 14 minutes, Wally was the only offensive player in Miami's world. For more than 17 minutes, he was the only RedHawk with a successful field-goal try. For the second time in three tournament games, Szczerbiak scored more than half of Miami's points (23 of 43).

        The law of averages favors basketball teams with better balance.

RedHawks kept in check
        “You're not going to stop Wally Szczerbiak from scoring,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. “He's too good a player. He's too versatile. What you need to do is make sure their other guys don't beat you. That's been one of our mantras. You don't think one guy can beat you.”

        Smith's game plan was to force Szczerbiak to create off the dribble instead of shooting from behind screens. The idea was to make him work harder for his two-pointers, to cut down on his threes. They figured if they couldn't stop him, they'd at least fatigue him.

        “This sounds crazy,” said Kentucky forward Scott Padgett, “but he only got 16 shots, so I guess we limited his touches. We just wanted to try to force him to put the ball on the floor a lot. We just wanted him to have to go to the hole instead of just catching it and shooting it.”

        No one guy — not even Szczerbiak — is going to beat Kentucky, not with Smith's human wave substitution pattern and the nimble feet and broad reach of his inside players. Miami managed only three offensive rebounds all night and failed to score a single “second-chance” point. This was a recipe for a rout.

        “I didn't realize how long they were,” Miami coach Charlie Coles said of the Wildcats. “We had not seen that all year. When they played that zone, the openings were not what we wanted to have in our zone offense.”

'Cats dominate inside
        Szczerbiak managed to keep the game close at first. But as the evening advanced toward midnight, it was pretty clear Miami was headed toward pumpkinhood. Kentucky committed 10 first-half turnovers — its sloppiest showing in two weeks — yet the Wildcats were so dominant inside that it scarcely mattered. They grabbed 37 of 55, making up through attrition what they lacked in aim.

        Defensively, too, the Wildcats' inside game was decisive. It caused Miami to alter shots it was accustomed to taking; to deliberate when circumstances called for an attack. Trailing by 10 points early in the second half, Miami's Damon Frierson hesitated briefly beneath the basket facing a tangle of Kentucky arms, and then overshot his target.

        “When we took it to the hole,” Szczerbiak said, “it was hard to finish.”

        Because Miami was so rarely allowed a second shot, the slightest hesitation was hazardous. Strategy dictated the RedHawks nurse the shot clock and trim the number of possessions. To make it work, though, they needed to connect when it counted.

        “We wanted to make them work in the first half,” Smith said. “We figured they'd hit the wall in the second half. You could see them getting a little tight, especially as the shot clock wound down.”

        You could see why Kentucky is defending a title, and Miami was living a dream.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail at

Photo gallery
Enough Wally, but not enough help