Date story published: Tuesday, March 31, 1998
SAN ANTONIO - Little came easy for Kentucky this season. So, of course, Utah, UK's favorite NCAA Tournament victim, refused to play dead.
Kentucky merely needed to mount the greatest comeback from a halftime deficit in the history of the championship game last night. So the Cats did just that and put a fitting punctuation on this season's never-say-die story line.
Kentucky endured and beat Utah 78-69.
In the first flush of victory, as the Cats cut down the nets, Cameron Mills put this most improbable of championships in perspective.
"Are you kidding me?" he said to teammate Scott Padgett. "Did we just win the national championship?"
First-year Coach Tubby Smith, who was criticized for his team's inability to win big, seemed stunned. "I kept asking Coach (C.M.) Newton, have we really won the national championship?" he said. "I guess I need someone to pinch me."
Probably few, if any, of Kentucky's previous six national championships came under tougher circumstances and more clearly revealed a team's resolve to win.
Kentucky won despite being thoroughly outplayed in the first half, despite trailing by as many as 12 points early in the second half and by seven with barely 10 minutes left.
Two UK staples all season - depth and defense (plenty of defense) - subdued Utah in the end.
Heshimu Evans and Mills gave the Cats a much-needed boost off the bench.
Mills swished two three-pointers down the stretch. The first tied it at 58-58 with 7:41 left, ending 24 straight minutes of trailing Utah. The second started a decisive 18-5 run in the final five minutes.
Evans scored eight of his 10 points in a three-minute span early in the second half. Those points kept Utah from building an insurmountable lead.
Kentucky (35-4) turned the business of winning the game to its defense. The Cats wore down the Utes. Utah missed 11 straight down the stretch.
The Utes (30-4) had only one basket in the final 5:52.
"I think we were tired," Utah Coach Rick Majerus said. "I probably should have played the bench a little more. (Vince) Lombardi had the best quote: Fatigue makes, well, 'cowards' isn't the right word. But I think fatigue factored into it."
Kentucky, which trailed at halftime against Duke (49-39) and Stanford (37-32), found itself needing another rally after intermission.
With an astounding 24-6 rebounding advantage, Utah led the Cats 41-31 at halftime. Foul trouble contributed to UK getting quadrupled on the boards. Center Nazr Mohammed did not play the final 7:53 because of two fouls.
But Utah killed the Cats on the boards even when Mohammed played.
"Coach came into the locker room at halftime and said, '24-6 on the boards? Are you serious?' " point guard Wayne Turner said.
Utah also outshot the Cats. Only 12 Ute turnovers kept UK as close as 10. Put another way, Utah played well enough to lead by 10 despite six turnovers by its supposedly indispensable point guard, Andre Miller.
The first six minutes of the game gave no hint of either team taking charge. In that time, there were five ties. And with 8:15 left in the half, Kentucky trailed only 22-21.
Then Utah reeled off 12 straight points, the final eight signaling UK would need yet another comeback.
Utah center Michael Doleac, who had only 12 three-pointers all season, hit a trey to put the Utes ahead 29-23.
Then Jeff Sheppard, UK's hero Saturday against Stanford, fumbled the ball away, leading to a Miller fast-break layup.
After Sheppard missed a three-pointer, Utah got another fast-break layup. This time, Alex Jensen scored while being fouled by Sheppard. The three-point play put the Utes ahead 34-23, their largest first-half advantage.
Utah made 57.1 percent of its shots in the half.
Meanwhile, UK struggled to shot 45.2 percent. Often, Utah's sticky man-to-man defense reduced the Cats' offense to either a drive (four baskets) or -improbably enough - hook shots from the low post.
The three-pointer - a major weapon in the comeback against Duke - was no help. UK missed all six of its three-point attempts.
With Utah holding its opposition to 7-for-51 from three-point range in the last 21/2 games, that didn't seem to be a likely comeback method.
If inevitable, the Kentucky comeback did not come early in the second half. Bad news came when Mohammed picked up his third foul and departed with 16:35 left.
When Evans hit UK's first three-pointer (with 16:11 left), Hanno Mottola answered with a three-pointer 23 seconds later to give the Utes a 50-40 lead.
But Evans wasn't finished. He scored UK's next five points, closing the gap to 50-45 and making it a game.
"We didn't think Evans could shoot quite that well," Majerus said. "We were more worried about (Allen) Edwards."
Kentucky finally tied it at 58-58 when Mills, fresh in the game, fed Magloire in the post, took a return pass and swished a three-pointer.
UK took its first lead since the 14:48 mark of the first half on the next possession. Sheppard stole a pass and raced to a dunk, putting the Cats ahead 60-58 with 7:16 left.
The teams traded would-be knockout blows in the next three minutes. Utah reeled off six straight points, taking a 64-60 lead and causing a 20-second UK timeout with 5:43 left.
Then Kentucky scored seven straight points to take a 67-64 lead with 4:16 left.
Utah wilted down the stretch. Kentucky, in the familiar territory of chasing down wounded prey, got stronger.
"We obviously have a lot of depth and talent," Mills said, before adding, "and an attitude that you have to beat us for 40 minutes. Not for 39."
"It's been a struggle," Mohammed said. "It makes it feel good. We earned it. We never gave up."