Date story published: Sunday, March 31, 1996
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The basketball world labeled Kentucky a front-running team that didn't like the heat of a close game. Massachusetts was amazingly cool (and successful) in the clutch.
But with the heat of a national championship bearing down last night, the teams reversed roles. Kentucky out-executed UMass when it mattered most. The reward was an 81-74 victory and a game against Syracuse Monday for the national championship.
"We just proved to the country we can win a tight game," point guard Anthony Epps said. "We put a `shoooosh' to all that."
Kentucky (33-2) did not perform with textbook precision. The Cats missed six of 10 free throws during a stretch when a 15-point second-half lead shrank to 63-60. Almost five stubborn minutes remained.
Mark Pope rode to the rescue, making six of six free throws in the final six minutes. The shots came with UK clinging to leads of five, three and three points.
"I was thinking I'd better make these or I won't be able to go back to Lexington," Pope said with a smile.
Turnovers also hurt Kentucky. With two minutes left and the lead down to 71-63, the Cats turned the ball over three straight possessions.
"I think they did great," UK Coach Rick Pitino said of his team's reaction to a game going down to the wire. "And I think they had trouble. People question it. It's a legitimate question. How do you know?"
UMass (35-2) honored its "Refuse to Lose" motto. Twice in the final five minutes, the Minutemen crept within three points. "I thought they might panic," UMass Coach John Calipari said of UK. "And they did a little bit. But not enough to affect the game."
Actually, UMass also panicked a little. The Minutemen squandered two chances to reduce a 63-60 deficit: once with a turnover, once when Carmelo Travieso quick-shot an NBA-length three-point attempt.
With UK clinging to a 71-67 lead, UMass came up empty two more times. All-American center Marcus Camby, reduced to mere mortality by UK's aggressive double-teaming, missed a turnaround jumper (just the kind of shot that propelled him to 32 points in UMass' 92-82 November victory over Kentucky).
Antoine Walker blocked Gidell Padilla's layup attempt with the rebound.
Camby struggled to score a game-high 25 points.
"They have just as much talent," Tony Delk said of UMass. "The difference was our big men were much more aggressive than last time. The first time, we gave him a lot of open looks. We gave him too much respect."
Two huge factors made Kenucky's ability to pull out the victory all the more impressive. Delk, who led UK with 20 points, suffered leg cramps that limited him to one basket the final 12 minutes.
Backup shooting guard Jeff Sheppard filled the void by scoring all seven of his points in the final six minutes.
The game's slower tempo also figured to reassure UMass down the stretch. "The game played and unfolded the way we wanted," Calipari said.
UK proved its ability to play a half-court game on the offensive and defensive ends. After a shaky start (four straight misses), the Cats repeatedly got good shots. Enough went in (47 percent in the first half, 51 percent in the game) to allow UK to get a lot from its pressure defense.
UMass played the half-court offense it prefers. Still, UK held the Minutemen to a single basket for more than seven minutes during one stretch and seemed to take control.
Kentucky's press sparked a mini run (7-0) that gave the Cats their largest lead, 28-20, and it was 36-28 at halftime.
The second half hardly could have started worse for UMass. The Minutemen got off only one shot in the first two-plus minutes and Travieso picked up his third and fourth fouls in a 13-second span.
The fourth came with 18:25 left when Walker fired a diagonal bullet pass to Delk under the basket. Travieso fouled to prevent a score.
It added up to another 7-0 run and gave Kentucky a 43-28 lead with 18 minutes left.
But UMass did not go away. The Minutemen reeled off seven straight points to get within 47-41.
The Cats wobbled, going scoreless for more than three and a half minutes. Delk missed two free throws as the tension heightened.
But UMass got nothing on seven consecutive possessions.
What remained was a test of nerves in what Derek Anderson judged the toughest game in a season of easy games.
"It was," he said. "And it was a lot of fun to play."