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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA MEN'S FINAL FOUR : An All-Too-Familiar End Leaves Wildcats in a Daze : Semifinal: Like last year, Kentucky gets into foul trouble and its season ends with overtime loss, 81-78, to Michigan.


NEW ORLEANS — They sat in front of their lockers and stared blankly ahead. Numbed by an 81-78 overtime loss to Michigan in Saturday night's Final Four semifinal, Kentucky's players were reduced to postgame shrugs and a cruel game of what-ifs.

Once again, a Kentucky season had ended with an overtime defeat. Once again, All-American forward Jamal Mashburn had fouled out and watched those crucial final minutes from the bench. Once again, Wildcat Coach Rick Pitino had to tell his team it had nothing to apologize for.

It was a little more than a year ago that Kentucky lost to Duke in the East Regional final. You remember: Grant Hill's long pass to Christian Laettner . . . less than two seconds to play . . . Laettner's shot snapping the net. Bedlam.

Saturday's game lacked the same degree of drama, but was similar in many ways.

Kentucky's best player, Mashburn, was reduced to a spectator with 3:23 remaining in overtime. Kentucky's best defensive player, guard Dale Brown, was out, too, the victim of a separated shoulder with 6:23 left in regulation. Kentucky's best sacrificial lamb, freshman Jared Prickett--he had to guard Michigan's Chris Webber--was gone with 4:36 to play in overtime, the sound of the whistle signaling his fifth foul still ringing in his ears.

And as was the case last season against Duke, the Wildcats had the lead in overtime. The game was theirs if they could hang on for 3:23.

They couldn't, which is why Pitino wore the dazed postgame look of someone who had been bopped on the head with a plumber's wrench.

"We thought we had a victory and we let it get away," Pitino said.

This was supposed to be the game where Michigan's Steve Fisher would be exposed as the lesser coach, where the Wolverines would wilt under the pressure of Kentucky's press, where Michigan would be overwhelmed by the sight of countless Wildcat three-pointers.

Instead, it was Kentucky that stumbled. Winners of their four previous NCAA tournament games by an average of 31 points, the Wildcats made their share of crucial errors.

For starters, Pitino never figured a way to free point guard Travis Ford from Michigan's constant pressure. The normally reliable Ford suffered through a three-of-10 game from the field and was only two of six from the three-point line, where he usually kills teams. "Most teams, they worry about everybody else," Ford said. "They made sure I didn't get my shots off. They play better defense than I thought."

Michigan guard Jimmy King did most of the work on Ford. Every time Ford tried to work his way off a screen or a pick, King was there. And when he wasn't, someone else would take his place.

Entering Saturday's game, Kentucky had trailed its tournament opponent only three times: 3-2 to Rider, 2-0 to Utah and 28-27 to Florida State. But Michigan allowed no such luxuries.

Pitino was forced to stick Prickett on the imposing Webber, who scored 27 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked two shots. Mashburn would have been Pitino's first choice to guard the Michigan forward, but he didn't want to risk losing his star to foul trouble.

Didn't matter. Mashburn picked up his fourth foul while trying to guard--you guessed it--Webber with 3:10 to play in regulation. It was a silly foul, one that hastened his early departure.

With Mashburn on the bench, Kentucky lost its heart and soul, a competent three-point shooter and, at least in the Wildcat players' minds, a sure victory.

Gimel Martinez, who replaced Mashburn in the lineup--and not too well--put it bluntly: "I'm sure if Jamal had stayed in the game and not fouled out, we would have won going away."

Kentucky is going away, all right, thanks in part to Martinez's play in the final minutes. He missed three of Kentucky's last six shots and also let Webber slip past him for an easy layup that gave Michigan a one-point lead with 41 seconds to play.

"We were just trying to hold together with tape," Kentucky assistant coach Herb Sendek said.

Instead, a game unraveled in front of their eyes. They had only themselves to blame, to say nothing of Michigan.

So Pitino said goodby to a team that won 30 games and lost only four. Mashburn is off to the NBA. Left behind is a program still in search of answers.

Why them? Why in overtime?

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