- Monday, April 1 1996 -
NCAA Championship (at East Rutherford, NJ)
Kentucky - 76 (Head Coach: Rick Pitino) - [Final Rank 2nd by AP]
Syracuse - 67 (Head Coach: Jim Boeheim) - [Final Rank 15th by AP]
Halftime Score: Kentucky 42, Syracuse 33
|Prior Game|||||Next Game|
|Massachusetts 81 - 74|||||Clemson 71 - 79 OT|
Game Writeup - by Malcolm Moran, New York Times
Relentless Kentucky Captures Championship
Syracuse Falls as Cats Claim Sixth Title
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., April 1 -- No one can touch them now. The Kentucky Wildcats fulfilled the most burdensome demand in college basketball tonight. They overcame a persistent but outnumbered group of Syracuse Orangemen, a team that somehow narrowed a 13-point second-half deficit to 2 and swelled Continental Arena with the hope of one of the most memorable upsets in the history of the national collegiate tournament.
But in the final, decisive minutes, the Wildcats, christened the Untouchables tonight by their coach, Rick Pitino, overcame every last desperate obstacle in their championship season with a 76-67 victory. Kentucky (34-2) won its sixth national championship -- second only to the 11 won by U.C.L.A. -- and its first since 1978.
The victory, coming a day after Tennessee won the women's title, gave the Southeastern Conference both national basketball championships this year.
Kentucky won in a manner that was as impressive as it was uncharacteristic. The Wildcats won at the defensive end, not through offensive brilliance. They won with their fifth-lowest point total of the season. They won with a rotation of seven players for most of the night, not the normal waves of 10 or more. They persevered when the pace of the game was much closer to the Syracuse plan than theirs, when the noise from much of the sellout crowd of 19,229 was pushing against them.
Kentucky had four double-figure scorers. Tony Delk tied a championship-game record with seven 3-point baskets, scored 24 points, and brought back memories of the 41 points Jack Givens scored to beat Duke for the 1978 title. Delk was voted the most outstanding player of the Final Four.
Ron Mercer, a freshman, scored 20 on 8-of-12 shooting. Derek Anderson and Antoine Walker each scored 11. Kentucky struggled at times against the zone and often lacked its trademark balance. The Wildcats, 49 percent shooters until tonight, became champions despite making just 38 percent of their shots. That figure was the lowest by a championship team since Loyola of Chicago won the 1963 championship game shooting 27 percent.
It was the Wildcats' relentless defensive approach, a decisive factor for the second consecutive game, that earned them Pitino's nickname, one that will stand with the Fabulous Five and the Fiddlin' Five, champions from the Adolph Rupp era. Kentucky's 21.5-point average margin of victory in the six games was the fourth-largest in the history of the tournament.
The last two games became two of the hardest-earned victories they would know. Against the 2-3 zone that propelled the fourth-seeded Orangemen through the West Regional, making them the lowest-seeded team to reach the championship game in four years, Delk scored 18 of his 24 points in the first half. Four of Delk's 6 second-half points came at once, on a 3-point shot he made while falling out of bounds along the left baseline as he was fouled by Todd Burgan. Delk's foul shot gave the Wildcats a 59-46 lead with 11 minutes 12 seconds to play.
"We haven't been a 3-point shooting team with the exception of Tony most of the year," Pitino said. "We took 27 tonight and I can honestly say 27 of them were great shots. And that's rare."
The season over, the coach's definitions could be more generous. Delk was harder on himself as he remembered the 4-point play. "I kind of saw them coming, so I had to fall down because I thought Coach would have got mad, because he was running at me. It was a bad shot."
Pitino smiled. "I said we didn't take any bad ones," he said.
"That was the only one," Delk said.
The Orangemen (29-9) were able to mount a comeback under the most difficult of circumstances, with Lazarus Sims, their point guard, playing with an injured left wrist. John Wallace scored 29 points on 11-of-19 shooting and had 10 rebounds. Burgan scored 19 on 7-of-10 shooting. But it was the frustration of Sims, who suffered the injury in a collision with Anthony Epps with 13:38 to play, that made the Syracuse task that much more difficult. "We had to get to Sims," Pitino said. "Make him tired, get him exhausted and get him working. We had to cut off the interior, but we had to pressure him. And certainly any time you get him out of the game, it's a big factor."
Sims, in his previous five tournament games, had earned 39 assists with 20 turnovers. Tonight he had 7 assists and 7 turnovers, and when he went to the sideline, his left arm dangling at his side, the Orangemen temporarily lost their structure. As Sims had his lower arm wrapped tightly, in hopes of a return, the Orangemen began a streak of five turnovers on their next five possessions, a stretch that allowed the Wildcats to build their 13-point lead.
The Kentucky lead was still 10 after Anderson made a shot from the top of the key with 9:18 to play. Then came the rally. Burgan made a 3-point shot. Wallace scored on a dunk, drew a foul, and completed the 3-point play. After Walker's basket increased the Kentucky lead to 64-58, Wallace added two scores, a layup and two foul shots to pull the Orangemen within 64-62 with 4:46 to play.
One last time, Kentucky had an answer. Walter McCarty converted an offensive rebound on Delk's miss to build the lead back to 4. Anderson made a 22-foot jumper from the left side after taking a pass from McCarty.
Jason Cipolla brought the Orangemen back within 5 with a 14-foot shot along the baseline. But Mark Pope made a 6-foot jumper in the lane with 3:03 to play, and the Wildcats were ahead, 71-64.
Then Wallace was called for an offensive foul, one created by Epps, with 2:48 to play. "We should have won the game," Wallace said. "Personally, we got a couple of bad calls that could have gone either way. But calls are irreversible."
Syracuse scored one basket in the last 3:23, a 3-point shot by Burgan that brought them within 5 with 2:01 to play. Wallace fouled out with 1:06 to go. Sims, having lost much of the feeling in his left hand, was limited. "I feel I let the team down," Sims said. "I got them this far and didn't capitalize. I feel I let them down. Aside from losing my father and grandfather, this is the worst feeling."
Sim's voice was soft, his eyes pointed toward the floor as he walked slowly to the dressing room for the last time in his college career. The Wildcats, walking the other way, stopped when they saw him. Delk embraced Sims, and so did Pitino, and then the Wildcats moved on. One of their voices shouted, "Repeat." At Kentucky, the joy of one championship season is followed that quickly by the expectation of another.
Rick Pitino gives some advice to Anthony Epps
Ron Mercer scores two of his season-high twenty points
Anthony Epps looks to pass