Monday, March 22, 1999

It's simple: Spartans were better team




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ST. LOUIS — In retrospect, it was a rebuilding year at Kentucky. Tubby Smith said so, and so did the Big Blue's body language.

        Derailed from a fourth straight trip to college basketball's Final Four Sunday evening, the Wildcats were able to distinguish disappointment from dismay in the aftermath of a 73-66 loss to Michigan State. There were more laughs than tears in their locker room following, plus the sympathetic ears and soulful eyes of Ashley Judd. The defending champions were dignified in defeat, befitting their regal bearing and betraying lingering doubts about their own legitimacy.

        Deep down, the 'Cats surely understood their shortcomings, and did even before they had been exposed by the Spartans. They have come to see the NCAA championship as a reward to be earned, not a divine right.

        “When you know you've given it your best, and you get beat by somebody better, you don't have any regrets,” Smith said, his voice unwavering, his eyes dry. “I think Michigan State is a team of destiny.”

No fluke
        In some corners of the Commonwealth, Smith's postgame remarks will be seen as damage control. No other coach in America is held to so high a standard, besieged by so much unsolicited advice, or faces such an arduous offseason.

        Yet, the fact is UK's tournament run probably ran its appropriate course. The 'Cats were too savvy to be stopped by Kansas, too athletic to be ambushed by Miami, but were neither as tough nor as tenacious as Michigan State. The Spartans set a Big Ten record Sunday with their 33rd victory of the season, and did so after trailing 17-4.

        This was no fluke. This was fate.

        “Every time it seemed like we made a play that might put us on a run, they would come back and make a big shot or a big play,” UK forward Scott Padgett said. “We got off to a very good start, but I think for once we were the team that got too excited about that start and we sort of let down.”

        Basketball is typically a game of spurts. Teams jockey back and forth until one seizes control with a brief surge of brilliance. For the first seven minutes Sunday, this UK team was every bit as dazzling as any of its predecessors. Subsequently, the 'Cats more closely resembled one of their victims: forcing too many shots as their half-court game devolved into one-on-one; yielding too many layups as their pressure defense failed to produce turnovers; getting shoved around inside by young men with more muscle.

Seniors outplayed
        UK's three senior starters — forwards Padgett and Heshimu Evans and point guard Wayne Turner — totaled 30 points and 11 rebounds. This was less than Michigan State got off the bench from Morris Peterson and A.J. Granger.

        Padgett, so resourceful against Kansas, was hard-pressed to get off his shot against the Spartans' seamless defensive switches. Evans tried to pick up the slack, but was quickly immobilized by ill-considered fouls. Turner has had a wonderful career in Lexington, but the UK point guard was no match for Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves.

        “Mateen is like the Pied Piper,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. “I told him, "Don't be walking off of any mountain because these guys will follow.' ”

        Antonio Smith also provided leadership for Michigan State, berating his teammates during an early timeout, demanding that they play harder. The Spartans played with the passion of a team that expected to win. The Wildcats looked like a bunch of guys crossing their fingers that no one would call their bluff.

        “Our intentions were to make it to the Final Four,” Wayne Turner said. “But we knew as the road went on, it would get tougher. ... I've been to three Final Fours, and I couldn't really ask for more.”

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

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