Friday, March 23, 2001

USC happy to prevent UK-Duke




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        PHILADELPHIA — The halftime joke was that Rick Pitino had been too hasty; that he should have delayed his decision to replace Denny Crum at Louisville until he could be sure how safe Tubby Smith was at Kentucky.

        College basketball's highest-pressure job looked harder still at intermission of Thursday night's East Regional semifinal. Before 20,270 — the largest crowd ever to see a basketball game in Pennsylvania — Kentucky trailed USC, 43-24. If you listened closely, you could hear the screaming from every corner of the Commonwealth.

        Only a day after the much-admired Pitino had resurfaced in Louisville red and black, Wildcat Nation was forced to
endure the additional indignity of UK's most troubling NCAA Tournament half since the 1984 meltdown against Georgetown. In the span of 20 minutes, a pass had hit Keith Bogans in the head and an All-American, Tayshaun Prince, had become a glorified spectator. The delicious prospect of a Philadelphia rematch with Duke — Christian Laettner revisited — seemed about as remote as Rangoon.
       

USC plays spoiler
               Somewhere on the road to oblivion, UK salvaged its respectability, but it could never overcome its deficit. Southern California withstood a furious Kentucky comeback, converted seven of its eight free throws in the final 92 seconds, and advanced to the Elite Eight with an 80-76 victory.

        “You guys wrote the stories that you want the Duke-Kentucky rematch,” said Trojans center Brian Scalabrine. “We wanted to prove everyone wrong. We feel like we belong here.”

        USC coach Henry Bibby had called his team “the little spoke in the wheel that's broke,” compared to the traditional powers who filled out the regional bracket. But the Trojans looked more like a juggernaut in the first half, muscling inside for uncontested layups, and then punishing UK from the perimeter when Smith changed his defense.

        “We dug ourselves a big hole,” senior guard Saul Smith said, “by not playing defense.”

        UK's place in the post-season is regarded as a birthright. Lexington finds little consolation in futile gallantry. Eight minutes from the end, UK had trimmed USC's 21-point lead to a single point, at 61-60. The Trojans were deep in foul trouble, point guard Brandon Granville on the bench with four fouls. Kentucky was dominating the offensive boards. Its victory appeared virtually inevitable.

        “We got into a similar situation during the SEC Tournament against Arkansas and made a run,” said UK forward Keith Bogans. “Today, we got too far down.”
       

Too little, too late
               College basketball is a strange game this time of year. Trends can develop and evaporate in the lifespan of a dribble. Just as the Trojans were teetering, forward David Bluthenthal steadied them with successive three-point baskets. When UK made its last charge, closing the gap to 75-74 with 32 seconds to play, Bluthenthal made five free throws before missing one that hardly mattered.

        Under pressure, the Trojans continued to persevere. The Wildcats never would take the lead.

        “People kept saying that if we lost, they be proud of us anyway,” said Bluthenthal, who finished with 27 points. “We wanted to keep playing.”

        E-mail tsullivan@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/sullivan.

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