Date story published: Tuesday, April 2, 1996
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - One final question remained for Kentucky in its glorious season: Can it win the national championship?
The versatile Cats again delved deeply into their seemingly bottomless bag of options last night and found the answer.
Syracuse's zone defense took away UK's patented inside game, so the Cats simply shifted to the three-pointer. And in a delicious irony considering the ignoble way UK limped out of last year's tournament against North Carolina, the Cats beat Syracuse 76-67 with a crisp, efficient three-point attack.
"I think we're national champions because of the North Carolina game," UK Coach Rick Pitino said. "I brought that game up to the team - not 1,000 times - but 500. We took 27 three-pointers. I can honestly say 27 were great shots. And that's rare."
It was Kentucky's sixth national championship and its first since 1978.
It came in Pitino's seventh season at UK, five years after the program came off NCAA probation.
Kentucky made a championship game record 12 three-pointers last night. In a testament to versatility, the Cats made more treys than they attempted (11) in their semifinal victory over Massachusetts .
Tony Delk, a shooting guard's shooting guard this season, led the way. He tied the final game record with seven three-pointers en route to a team-high 24 points. Delk was named most outstanding player of the Final Four.
"It's a feeling not too many players get, that many good looks," Delk said. "I owe it to my teammates for penetrating and looking for me."
Syracuse's signature defense this season, the old-fashioned 2-3 zone, dictated Kentucky's reliance on the three-pointer. The Cats seemed out of sync during stretches of the game, but Pitino found no fault with his team's zone offense.
"We did a great job from the first second to the last second attacking the zone," he said. "We kept getting inside to 8 feet. Believe it or not, that's the toughest shot in basketball. We probably missed 15 shots within 10 feet."
UK got a big lift from freshman Ron Mercer, who hit eight of 12 shots from the field and scored a career-high 20 points.
Pitino said Mercer told him before the game, "I'm ready now, you don't have to wait any more."
UK shot 38.4 percent, the worst accuracy for a winner of the championship game in 33 years.
Syracuse (29-9), a 14-point underdog, competed mightily. The end came when senior star John Wallace, who led all scorers with 29 points, fouled out with 1:06 left.
"John Wallace stepped up as big as anyone ever has for us," Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said. "Everybody said we needed to play a perfect game. I didn't think that. But we had to play a little better than we did."
Kentucky (34-2) needed time to figure out the Syracuse zone. Once adjusted, UK took control of the first half.
UK led 42-33 at the break, thanks in large part to eight three-point baskets, more treys than the Cats had made in - believe it or not - 24 other games this season. Delk led the way with six three-pointers, three of which erased deficits .
Kentucky's pressure defense neutralized the early poor shooting (12 of the first 15 shots missed).
Syracuse, which had five turnovers against Mississippi State in the semifinals, committed its sixth with 12:50 left in the first half. It had 24 in the game.
Kentucky missed its first five shots of the second half and Syracuse closed within 48-46 , prompting a 20-second UK timeout .
Back-to-back assertive baskets by Mercer and Antoine Walker sparked a UK breakout. The Cats 11 straight points built their largest lead to that point, 59-46.
Delk capped the run with a four-point play with 11:12 left. He hit a three-pointer from the left corner - his record-tying seventh - while being run over by Burgan.
Syracuse squandered chances to cut into the lead, committing turnovers on five straight possessions, but a Burgan three-pointer and Wallace's driving dunk while being fouled reduced Kentucky's lead to 62-58.
Syracuse got as close as 64-62 with 4:46 left. Walter McCarty eased the pressure by tipping in Delk's three-point miss.
After Cipolla missed a forced shot in the lane, Derek Anderson hit a three-pointer, UK's last of the game, to seal the victory.
"That was the game," Boeheim said. "It came down to two plays with the score 64-60. They made the plays."