Comeback Cats Digging itself out of one last hole, Kentucky brought a resounding end to the first year of the Tubby Smith era with its seventh NCAA title

April 05, 1998

His work done, Kentucky coach Tubby Smith stood on the floor of
San Antonio's Alamodome on Monday night, awaiting a word with
CBS. Kentucky guard Cameron Mills stood beside him with his head
on Smith's shoulder, a shoulder Mills wouldn't have traded for a
down-filled pillow.

Then Smith turned and kissed the top of Mills's head. In that
moment a Kentucky team for the ages, a team that won the
school's seventh NCAA title and expunged its greatest shame,
did its best to seduce every basketball fan who has always found
the Big Blue a little too big and a little too smug. Every fan,
that is, not already smitten by the comebacks the Wildcats had
staged during an NCAA tournament as irresistible as its champion.

These Wildcats had strength, but they also had vulnerability.
Oh, did they have vulnerability. To get to the Final Four they
spotted Duke a 17-point lead and won. They went down 10 in the
second half to Stanford last Saturday before forcing overtime
and prevailing 86-85 to reach the championship game. And at
intermission on Monday--down 10, outrebounded by 18, unable to
hit a single three-pointer--they looked as if they had dug
themselves one hole too many, but they rallied to wipe out the
largest halftime deficit that any team had overcome to win a
title game and came away with a 78-69 defeat of Utah.

The scoreboard had Utah leading for what seemed like an eternity
before senior Jeff Sheppard, the Final Four's Most Outstanding
Player, stepped into a passing lane with slightly more than
seven minutes to play, intercepted a pass from Utah's Hanno
Mottola and then galloped downcourt for the dunk that would give
Kentucky its first lead since early in the first half. The
Wildcats would lose that lead, of course; nothing came easy for
them. But they limited the Utes to eight baskets over the final
20 minutes and so pressured the Utes' point guard, Andre Miller,
that down the stretch he looked, in Utah coach Rick Majerus's
words, "like a punch-drunk fighter." Oh, the product of a
misspent Ute.

"In '96 everyone knew we were going to win it," Sheppard said
after Kentucky clinched its second title in three years. "We had
so much talent, it was more of a relief when we won it. This
year it's pure joy.

"I think next year the guys need to work on not getting down by
so much," he added.

Sheppard did all he could to bring the Wildcats back. He buried
two three-pointers in the last three minutes of regulation
against Stanford, then in overtime he scored on a drive and
curled snugly off a screen for another three before finally
adding the last of his career-best 27 points, the free throw
that gave the Wildcats their decisive margin. "It wasn't like he
was making uncontested shots," Stanford forward Peter Sauer said
of Sheppard. "We had guys flying at him all night." Added
Cardinal assistant coach Doug Oliver, "He squares himself in the
air, almost."

It was only by chance that Sheppard ever came to Kentucky's
attention. After his junior year at Atlanta's McIntosh High, he
wasn't good enough to make the state all-star team, which was
booked to play in the Boston Shootout, one of the summertime
meat markets for high school talent. Only after one player on
the team and the first alternate were unable to play did
Sheppard get the chance to join up. In Boston he won the
slam-dunk contest, imprinting himself on the consciousness of
Rick Pitino, Kentucky's coach at the time. Sheppard went on to
be named Georgia's Mr. Basketball the following season and
fulfill his longstanding dream to play at Kentucky.

In Lexington, Sheppard faced challenges of a different order. As
a junior he contributed to the Wildcats' 1996 title, averaging
5.5 points a game. But a year ago, with future first-round NBA
picks Ron Mercer and Derek Anderson playing ahead of him,
Sheppard acted on Pitino's suggestion that he redshirt for what
would have been his senior season. Only after his teammates
interceded with Pitino was he permitted to travel with the
squad, and then he had to watch as Anderson went down with a
knee injury in January and the Wildcats lost in overtime of the
championship game.

Even this season, under the lighter lash of Smith, Sheppard was
still so tightly coiled a personality that his fiancee, former
Kentucky women's basketball player Stacey Reed, had to
straighten him out. "He had been struggling, and all these
people were putting pressure on him, asking if he was going to
be drafted or not," says Reed. "Before the last home game I told
him the NBA stuff doesn't matter to me, but that he wouldn't be
happy if he wasn't playing the way he's capable of playing. Then
against Auburn he really broke out. Ever since then he's been a
totally different player."

His teammates alternately drew strength from and got a laugh
over Sheppard's intensity. After suffering a severe ankle sprain
that caused him to miss the SEC championship game, he had to
spend an entire night having the ankle treated just 48 hours
before the NCAA tournament opener. With his leg still noticeably
discolored, he was the best player on the floor as Kentucky
swept through its first two games in the subregional. Teammates
also tell of a game at Ohio University in December when
Sheppard, hampered by a bad back, got sick of being whacked by
his defender. "If [number] 12 cheap-shots me in the back one
more time," he yelled at the referee, "it's on!"

"I told him, 'Shep, run him off a screen over here,'" forward
Scott Padgett says. "I got the guy pretty good."

Therein lies a truth about this edition of the Wildcats: No
collection of players in Kentucky's recent run--the Duke teams
of the early 1990s were the last to reach three straight
championship games--has been more reliant on one another than
the '98 team. With so many good but not great players, none has
more sorely needed to. These Wildcats even leaned on their coach.

"With Coach Pitino, you played with that fear factor," Padgett
said last week. "Sometimes you played tight because you knew if
you made a mistake, you were coming out. Now, if you make
mistakes, Coach Smith gets upset about it and lets you know, but
he also lets you go down to the other end and have a chance to
make up for the mistake."

Smith's compassion and his industry come from growing up one of
17 kids in a low-country Maryland farm family. In the 1966 NCAA
final, played at Maryland's Cole Field House, a Kentucky team
coached by Adolph Rupp lost to Texas Western, the first national
champion to start five black players. Smith, then 14, was no
Kentucky fan that night. "Not so much because [Texas Western]
was black," he says. "But seeing the underdogs win the way they
did gives all underdogs some hope. That's what it did for me."

Under Pitino, Kentucky had been the classic overdog, a 94-foot
force of nature. Those close to him say Pitino lit out for the
Boston Celtics last spring in part because he didn't believe
that the Wildcats, after sending six players to the NBA over two
years, could win a title this season. And while it's hard to
think of a squad with five players who were national champions
two years ago as Team Woebegone, the group that Smith inherited
did need remedial work. In December the Wildcats lost at home to
a Louisville team that would go 12-20. After Pitino, their style
seemed so pedestrian that one talk-radio caller voiced a
heretofore unthinkable question: How come the basketball
Wildcats can't be as exciting as Hal Mumme's pass-happy football
team?

Following another home loss, to Mississippi on Valentine's Day,
Smith ordered up supplemental 6 a.m. practices. Ole Miss would
be the Wildcats' last loss of the season. "After we lost those
three home games, even I wanted to call my own radio show and
say, 'You bum!'" Smith said last week. "Now I think people in
Kentucky have accepted that maybe this guy knows a little bit."

On Monday night, while Smith was thanking (in no particular
order) God, his parents, his wife, Pitino, Kentucky athletic
director C.M. Newton, the players, the school president, the
fans, the Utes ("for their good effort"), the NCAA, "all the
teams that played in the tournament," the media, San Antonio and
"all the players I've ever coached"--and then thanked them all
over again--Pitino was watching in a friend's Miami Beach condo,
unable to work out the logistics of chartering a jet to the game.

"Rick is the most charismatic communicator and master teacher
and coach I've ever seen in one package," says Newton, who hired
both Pitino and his successor. "We had a whole team of kids
coming back that he recruited. We had to have someone whose ego
would permit the inevitable comparisons to Rick--someone
confident enough in himself, because those comparisons would be
constant."

Early in the season Smith proved to Newton that he was that man.
Guard Allen Edwards had let slip that he thought the team ought
to be pressing more, and his comments were bandied about in the
media. "Now, there are three ways to respond to that," Newton
says. "One is to tell the player to shut up, that this is my
team, and we'll do things my way. Another is to get defensive
and make a big deal of it. Then there's the way Tubby handled
it: He said, 'Allen is a good young man, a college student
entitled to express his opinions--but, hey, I'm the head coach,
and I'll determine the best defense.' Allen had bought into
Rick's philosophy, and Tubby had enough patience and
understanding to handle it without feeling threatened."

Success is a choice, or so goes the title of the latest of
Pitino's motivational tomes. But for the man who took Pitino's
place, success is more like an imperative, at least to a black
man coaching at a place that rose to prominence under Rupp, who
well into his retirement was telling sportswriters that the game
suffered from having too many blacks playing it. Newton still
gets unsigned hate mail criticizing his choice of a replacement
for Pitino. But the achievement of Smith's first team is certain
to have Newton repeating one of his favorite lines with more
gusto than ever: "Who's our coach isn't a black-and-white issue.
It's a blue-and-white issue."

Smith and his team won over college basketball fans in this
Final Four even as the rotund Majerus and his Utes staked a
worthy claim of their own for the nation's affections. Majerus
was an assistant at Marquette when wisecracking Al McGuire won
the national title in his valedictory season, 1977, and now he
does a better McGuire than McGuire himself. Utah's hotel in San
Antonio was "one step ahead of the health department," Majerus
told the media. The Utes don't make the late-night highlight
shows because, "What are they gonna say? 'Here's a down screen
and a jump shot?'" At a press conference on Sunday, as someone
asked Miller a convoluted, racially charged question, the P.A.
system began warbling with feedback, and Majerus, sensing where
the question was going, seized the moment. "It's God," he said.
"Sending you a message."

Not since that 1977 NCAA title run that Coach Al called
"seashells and balloons" has a coach been such a people's
choice. Majerus isn't going anywhere, however, except perhaps to
another coaching job at Arizona State or in the pros. So not
beating Kentucky was just so much more scallops and Blimpies.

Moments after Monday's final buzzer, the Wildcats repaired to
their locker room to receive their most public fan, Kentucky
alumna, actress and Academy Awards presenter Ashley Judd, who
has now strung together two Mondays she's not likely to forget.
Donna Smith, the coach's wife, was among those who helped Judd
pick out the thigh-and-mighty dress that caused gasps when she
swanned onstage at the Oscars. Says Judd, "When I became
something of a scandal, Donna said, 'You know what? Four old
ladies picked that dress out. You're doing what we can't.'"

In a way, Donna Smith's husband was doing the same on Monday
night, achieving what others before him couldn't because they
never had the opportunity to try. His feat was made all the more
poignant by the fact that Rupp's widow, Esther, died the day
before the championship game.

Kentucky's victory also came only hours after North Carolina
forward Makhtar Ndiaye retracted and apologized for a baseless
charge, leveled after Utah's 65-59 semifinal defeat of the Tar
Heels last Saturday, that the Utes' Britton Johnsen had hurled
the n word at him. The 1998 title game seemed to hold out some
hope that perhaps racism is finally ready to take its leave from
college basketball.

In the Bluegrass they'll come up with a nickname for this team,
something to fall in line behind Rupp's Runts, the Fiddlin'
Five, the Unforgettables and the Untouchables. But to fans in 49
other states, those who have always had a hard time warming up
to the Wildcats, Tubby Smith's first team might be known as the
Irresistibles. "Allen Edwards's mother passed away this season,"
center Nazr Mohammed said last week. "I had my weight situation
[Mohammed dropped 60 pounds to get to his current 240]. Scott
[Padgett] had to come back from flunking out [his freshman
year], and Shep had to sit out last season. Every player on our
team endured some kind of hardship."

It's all worth it when you can step out on a stage before
millions on a Monday night, virtually naked to the world. When
you can take a heart that aches on Valentine's Day and make it
glad again.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH COVER Wildcat Strike Another late blitz carries Kentucky to the title [Wayne Turner and Hanno Mottola in game] COLOR PHOTO: RICH CLARKSON, NCAA PHOTOS SKY HIGH When he wasn't harassing the Utes' Drew Hansen, high-flying Heshimu Evans was scoring 10 of the 25 points tallied by the Kentucky bench. [Scott Padgett, Michael Doleac, Britton Johnson, Allen Edwards, Saul Smith, Andre Miller, Heshimu Evans, and Drew Hansen in game] COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN To the hole The spectacular Sheppard's 16 points against Utah, plus his Cardinal-killing 27 in the semis, made him the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player. [Hanno Mottola, Jeff Sheppard, and others in game] COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN FLYING FINN Mottola helped power the Utes to their first-half lead, setting the stage for the Cats' rally. [Allen Edwards, Hanno Mottola, and another Kentucky player in game]
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN HANDY AROUND THE RIM Jamaal Magloire took care of business upstairs during the game (opposite), and then Smith stepped up and made the final cut. [Heshimu Evans, Jamaal Magloire, and Utah player in game] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above--Tubby Smith cutting net from rim]

Kentucky overcame a halftime deficit no team had overcome to win
a title.

"Who's our coach isn't a black-and-white issue," says Newton.
"It's a blue-and-white issue."

Perhaps racism is finally ready to take its leave from college
basketball.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)