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UK A FINAL FORCE

Date story published: Sunday, March 24, 1996

MINNEAPOLIS -- The coach is an Armani-suited celebrity. The players are college basketball's version of Showtime. No Lakers girls, but fast breaks and dunks galore.

Fittingly, blue-collar sweat propelled Kentucky to next weekend's Final Four in the swamps of Jersey. Not three-point baskets. Not an avalanche of points.

Defense beat Wake Forest 83-63 yesterday and gave Kentucky its much-desired rematch with Massachusetts next Saturday in the national semifinals.

"We showed the world Kentucky can beat a team without the game being a full-court game," said point guard Anthony Epps, one of four UK players named to the All-Midwest Regional team. "We did it in the half-court. If you play Kentucky, you better be ready for defense."

What defense it was. Kentucky held Wake Forest, the No. 2 seed in the region, to four first-half baskets. And one of those was a fluke. UK freshman Wayne Turner saved a ball that went through teammate Mark Pope's legs to Wake's Sean Allen under the basket.

"We played the best half-court defense in my seven years at Kentucky," UK Coach Rick Pitino said, "and they didn't realize it because there wasn't a lot of acrobatic plays and things like that."

Oh, UK players realized it. Pitino didn't think so because when he entered the locker room at halftime, the players looked subdued. "We were jumping around so much (associate coach Jim O'Brien) told us, 'Let's save it for the second half,' " Walter McCarty said. "Coach Pitino came in and thought we were sulking. He said, 'Cheer up, this is the best defense you've played.' It was amazing the way everybody had everyone's back."

Kentucky smothered Tim Duncan, Wake's All-America center, with double- and triple-teaming each time he touched the ball. He got off only seven shots.

"He had enough catches," Wake Forest Coach Dave Odom said of Duncan. "He didn't have enough shots. We got the ball where we wanted. But the irony was we may have gotten it where Kentucky wanted it, too. They didn't stop our half-court sets. They stopped us when Timmy got the ball where he normally scores."

Duncan did not score a basket until the 12-minute mark of the second half. Plus, UK limited Wake's three-point shooting when Duncan threw the ball to the perimeter. Wake was 2-for-9 in the first half from beyond the arc, 9-for-23 for the game.

"I told the guys it's not a multiple-choice question; you must stop both," said Pitino, whose defenders limited Wake to two baskets in the game's first 14 minutes. "It's the best doubling and X-cutting out of the double team (which means also guarding the perimeter) I've seen in a long time. Since I've been in the game of basketball."

Not that Kentucky's press wasn't a factor. Wake did not turn the ball over once in the first 12 minutes against Louisville on Thursday. The Deacons had eight turnovers in their first 12 possessions against UK.

"Louisville's not a pressing team," UK forward Antoine Walker said. "We thrive off turning a team over."

Kentucky erased any lingering doubts about its ability to handle a slower tempo. The Cats never trailed, led by double digits inside the first seven minutes and enjoyed a 38-19 halftime cushion. Interestingly, in a much faster game Thursday against Utah, Kentucky led by 22 points at the break.

The lead yesterday reached its zenith at 28 points (57-29) with 13:12 left in the second half.

Despite the absence of starting point guard Tony Rutland and the presence of such an imposing deficit, Wake did not quit.

"That's the most pressure I've had on me all year," said Rusty LaRue, who tried to fill the ball-handling gap. "We seemed to do better when we moved the ball and didn't put it on the floor."

The Demon Deacons still trailed 63-40 with nine minutes left. But a flurry of three-pointers -- three in a two-minute span -- helped reduce Kentucky's lead to 66-55. More than four minutes remained.

"But they brought (Tony) Delk back off the bench, and he got hot," LaRue said.

Delk, who was named the Midwest Regional's Most Valuable Player, scored seven straight points to ease the growing concern. He hit a foul-line jumper, a shot from the right side and then made three free throws when fouled on a three-point attempt.

Goodbye, Wake rally. Hello, Final Four.

"(Pitino) showed a lot of confidence in me even though I had been shooting badly (30-for-82 the last six games, six-for-15 against Utah)," Delk said. "I felt like I had to make those shots. Like it was a life-or-death situation out there."

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