Date story published: Friday, March 23, 2001
PHILADELPHIA -- Kentucky's press was expected to be the difference. Southern California had been turnover prone this season. Plus, the Trojans' wobbly play and laid-back personalities led their coach, Henry Bibby, to question his players' toughness.
Well, in a sense, the press did play a key role. But not UK's full-court defense.
In explaining its 80-76 victory over the Cats last night, USC cited newspaper accounts chronicling the delicious anticipation of a replay of the epic Kentucky-Duke game in the 1992 East Region final here.
"Everybody, including CBS, wanted that big rematch," USC forward Brian Scalabrine said. "We felt we belonged here."
Bibby unabashedly credited the Kentucky-Duke media hype as a factor.
"Absolutely," he said. "And I thank you guys for that. You guys deserve half the victory."
Southern Cal's toughness, no longer in question after this game, deserved credit, too.
With the largest crowd to watch a college basketball game in Pennsylvania (20,270) in attendance, USC led by as much as 21 points early in the second half.
But Kentucky, which had not been beaten badly all season, refused to go down without a fight. Despite a strangely ineffective Tayshaun Prince, whose six points marked his lowest total since getting three against Penn State, the Cats rallied.
Keith Bogans filled the void. His 21 second-half points led a Kentucky charge that twice got the deficit down to a single point.
But thanks mightily to forward David Bluthenthal, USC never let Kentucky get any closer. Bluthenthal repeatedly answered the challenge, scoring 17 of his 27 points in the second half.
"It was a tale of two halves," UK Coach Tubby Smith said. "We were a totally different team to start the second half."
Southern California dominated Kentucky throughout the first half. The Trojans aggressively defended, trapping at times out of its zone. UK struggled to make the elemental entry pass into the low post on offense.
"They threw us off in the first half," Prince said. "We took some shots that didn't fall for us and some we weren't accustomed to taking."
On defense, which had been the team's calling card in this season of achievement, the Cats looked a step slow at best, confused at worse.
As a result, Southern Cal looked like the NCAA Tournament dynasty program.
The reversal of expected roles started early. Kentucky, which had hoped to exploit USC's sometimes careless ball-handling, turned the ball over on its first two possessions. The third possession saw Prince badly miss a three-point attempt from the top of the key. Believe it or not, a player who had made 19 of 31 shots in Uniondale, N.Y., last week, threw up a shot that banged hard off the glass, barely touching the rim on the ricochet. He made only two of eight shots.
"Prince and Bogans, those were the only two we felt could beat us," Bibby said. "The other guys average six or seven points. They're not accustomed to shooting. We wanted to have those guys shoot the ball as much as possible."
Prince, who equaled a season- low eight shots, did not make a basket in the final 28 minutes.
"We watched an unbelievable amount of film, probably every game he played this season," Scalabrine said of the preparation to contain Prince. "Against Iowa and Holy Cross (last week in Uniondale, N.Y.), he was hitting shots from 35 feet. We wanted to make him put the ball on the floor. After that, it was just heart and hard work."
It was also double- and triple-teaming.
In one first-half sequence, Southern California hit 12 of 13 shots. The miss (a fast-break layup attempt by Jeff Trepagnier) was cleaned up by point guard Brandon Granville's putback. USC scored on 14 of 15 possessions.
"We dug ourselves a big hole by not playing defense," point guard Saul Smith said. "It wasn't offense. We were getting good looks."
Bogans recalled UK's stirring comeback from 15 down against Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. "Today," he said, "we got too far down. They were a great team and they kept hitting shots every time we got back in the game."
Kentucky trailed 43-24 at halftime. That marked the team's largest halftime deficit of the season.
After Southern Cal scored the first basket of the second half to match its largest lead, Kentucky closed quickly. Bogans and Jason Parker led a 22-3 run that closed the USC lead to 48-46 with 13:28 left.
Later, Kentucky rode a wave of four straight three-point baskets (two each by Bogans and Saul Smith) to reduce the deficit to 61-60 with 8:06 left.
But Southern Cal, which had only two baskets and four turnovers in the half's first seven minutes, found its resolve. Bluthenthal nailed a three-pointer from the left corner.
A minute later, Bluthenthal coolly hit a three-pointer on the fast break to put the Trojans ahead 67-60.
When yet another Bogans driving basket got UK within 70-64, Bluthenthal hit another three-pointer, this time over Prince's outstretched hand, to put USC ahead by nine with four minutes left.
A victory seemed to be slipping away when Kentucky got no points on an intentional foul on USC with 2:05 left. Parker missed both free throws, then Bogans missed a jumper.
Trailing by seven with less than 90 seconds left, UK mounted one more charge.
Two Parker free throws got UK within 75-70 with 1:15 left.
After Scalabrine put up an air ball, Bogans charged down the court and threw down a dunk that made it 75-72 with 42.8 seconds left.
UK called time to set its press. The tension mounted.
Granville inexplicably left the ball behind as he tried to split two Cats near mid-court. After Clancy rejected Fitch's driving shot, Erik Daniels banked in the loose ball to close the deficit to 75-74 with 32.2 seconds left.
Bogans, so much the heroic figure in the second half, tried to deny the inbounds pass but he fouled Bluthenthal. The USC forward hit both free throws to make it 77-74 with 31.3 seconds left.
The shots were the first of Bluthenthal's five-for-six clutch shooting from the line at the end. The free throws capped his 17-point second half and sent Kentucky home.