Date story published: Sunday, March 30, 1997
INDIANAPOLIS - It looked like the kind of game Minnesota specialized in winning this season. Tight. A gut-check down the stretch. To turn the screws a little tighter, Kentucky entered money time having just seen an eight-point lead vanish in less than three minutes. The surprisingly loud Minnesota fans rang cheers throughout the RCA Dome.
All the while, UK All-American Ron Mercer struggled toward a 7-for-21 shooting night. Cramps in both his calves and a tightening hamstring didn't bode well, either.
"If you asked anybody on the team, I don't think anybody at any time thought we were going to lose," UK forward Scott Padgett said. "We knew if we kept putting pressure on them and kept taking good shots, we'd win."
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That's exactly what happened.
Kentucky out gut-checked the kings of intestinal fortitude this college basketball season. The Cats beat Minnesota 78-69 to advance to Monday's national championship game.
UK (35-4) will play Arizona for the championship. Arizona upset North Carolina 66-58 in last night's first semifinal.
Minnesota, which had won 12 of 15 games decided by seven points or less this season, saw its Big Ten championship season end with a 31-4 record.
"It is incredible," UK Coach Rick Pitino said. "We're not last year's team. But I've never coached a team with this much heart in my life.... We've now beaten two teams in the top five to get to the championship game, and I'm blown away (by) their grit."
Although he scored the Cats' prettiest basket (a floating one-hander in transition created by a 360-degree spin), Mercer never got in a shooting rhythm. Maybe it proved he was human. Mercer had been shooting 54.8 percent (51 of 93) in the post-season.
After making three of 13 first-half shots, Mercer sought advice. "The coaches told me I wasn't jumping as high, so my shots were coming up short," he said. "But Minnesota played good defense as well."
Kentucky's pressure defense more than compensated. Minnesota, which averaged only 14.3 turnovers in its previous 34 games this season, had 15 in the first half, and 26 in the game. Minnesota hadn't had more than 19 turnovers in a game since Dec. 28.
At times the Gophers looked disoriented. Like when 7-footer Trevor Winter passed across the half-court line even though he was standing a good 10 feet into the front court (Turnover No. 12). Like when lumbering power forward (and Indianapolis native) Courtney James threw a cross-court pass several feet in front of Jackson (Turnover No. 14).
Minnesota turned over the ball on its first four possessions, and six of its first nine.
"We came out scared, I think," said Big Ten Player of the Year Bobby Jackson, who led the Gophers with 23. "We had all those careless turnovers. A team like Kentucky is going to capitalize on that."
Kentucky, which never trailed in the first half, established an early 6-0 lead. The cushion grew to as much as 10 points in the first half.
Mercer's only scoring flurry came early in the second half. He hit four of his first six shots to counter Minnesota's determined charge.
A technical foul against Minnesota Coach Clem Haskins also helped the Cats. Haskins already showed his displeasure with the officiating by glaring at the referees as he left the floor at the end of the first half. The Minnesota coach's feelings boiled over with 14:31 left in the game. A charging call on James after his collision with UK freshman Jamaal Magloire caused Haskins to lose his composure. He jumped up, then ripped off his coat and came onto the court.
"I stepped up and took the charge," Magloire said. "He looked like he (James) was a little out of control."
The technical on Haskins gave Derek Anderson his long-awaited chance to participate.
Anderson, who became UK's designated free-throw shooter on technical fouls when he tore an anterior cruciate ligament Jan. 18, made two free throws to give the Cats a 49-43 lead.
"Our crowd had been dead for a while," Padgett said. "Their crowd had been hyper the whole night. Then our crowd roared and didn't stop the rest of the game."
Never mind the fans, Pitino said he hoped Anderson's entry into the game would help the players.
"It was an emotional lift for the team," he said. "They were tired. Beaten up. Bloody."
With Anderson safely returned to the bench, Mercer hit a jumper on the ensuing possession to put Kentucky ahead by eight.
Calling upon a season-long reserve of mental toughness, Minnesota refused to wilt. The Gophers went on a 9-0 run. Jackson and Sam Jacobson scored all nine points. Jackson's one-handed, hanging-in-the-air reverse layup reduced UK's lead to 51-49. His three-pointer with 10:51 left gave Minnesota its first lead, 52-51.
"Yeah, I felt good," Haskins said. "We fought the uphill battle. We got that lead. Then we just shot the ball too quickly. The pressure got to us."
Minnesota's only lead of the game lasted 16 seconds, or until Mercer hit two free throws. That started an 11-2 UK run that built a 65-56 lead.
Cameron Mills and Padgett provided the clinching final five points in the run. Substituting for Mercer (who was shaken up while being fouled), Mills made two free throws to extend the lead to 62-56.
Then Padgett, who Pitino earlier in the week encouraged to keep shooting, buried a three-pointer. Even a team as gutty as Minnesota couldn't overcome a nine-point UK lead in the final five minutes.
"At this stage, no team is going to die and go away," Mills said. "We knew they'd make a run. We felt we had another run in us."