April 04, 1993|MIKE DOWNEY

NEW ORLEANS — "Give me your hand," Rob Pelinka said, pulling his finger.

"What for?" Chris Webber asked.

"Take this," Pelinka said.

"Take what?" Webber asked.

"My ring," Pelinka said.

This was before the Michigan-Kentucky basketball game Saturday at the Louisiana Superdome. Pelinka unscrewed the ring from his finger. Studded onto it was an inscription: 1989 NATIONAL CHAMPS. Pelinka won it playing for Michigan. He went to the White House, met George Bush and smelled the roses. Now he wanted his younger teammate to know how it felt. How it felt to dress for success.

"Wear this for one day," Pelinka said.

A nice sales technique. We aim to please here at Pelinka Jewelers. "Try it on for size," the senior said. "See how it feels."

But Webber's hand was so much larger than his own, the ring wouldn't fit. So, the strapping sophomore, 6-feet-9 and the most fabulous of Michigan's "Fab Five," slid Pelinka's ring onto his pinky. A Pelinka pinky ring.

Then they went out to play Kentucky. A year ago together, they had played Duke in the national championship game and lost. Now they longed for one more shot. Webber, the superstar, wanted to win one in case he turned pro. Pelinka, the supersub, wanted to become one of those rare individuals who appears in three championship games.

And, mostly, they wanted the last word. They wanted to silence the Wolverine bashers. Which ones in particular? The ones who said Michigan was too wild, too reckless, too undisciplined, too much talk and not enough action, too much ability and not enough heart, too much cool and not enough calm.

They showed 'em.

Underachiever Michigan 81, Achiever Kentucky 78, overtime.

"So many doubters," Michigan's Ray Jackson said. "So, so many."

"The villains!" teammate Jalen Rose shouted to everybody and anybody. "The villains win again!"

Michigan--in again.

The bad guys. Bad guys wearing black socks instead of black hats. How did it happen? Who made Michigan the unofficial tournament outlaws? Why was Temple's coach so annoyed with them? Why had that Walton guy "from the UCLA olden days," as Rose put it, gotten so down on this team? Why were older people from both coasts shooting off their mouths about a bunch of young basketball players who supposedly spent too much time shooting off their mouths?

"I don't know," Pelinka said. "But if you guys would just do us a favor and doubt us one more time, I think we can win this thing."

He was grinning ear to ear. Two points were all Pelinka scored in Michigan's 45 minutes of truth. But Webber scored 27. And Rose scored 18. And Juwan Howard got 17. And Ray Jackson had 11. And, OK, maybe Jimmy King had gotten into foul trouble, but wasn't he the guy who got the Wolverines here in the first place with that shot against UCLA?

Michigan--in again.

Once again, opponents had dragged them kicking and screaming into overtime. Fourth time in the last eight games that has happened. Another chance for Steve Fisher's fabsters to underachieve.

They did not. Kentucky didn't sink a single basket in the last 4:24 of overtime. When the heat was on, the Wolverines once again were cool. Credit where credit's due.

There the Fishermen were, down by 76-72, definitely in hot water. Then Kentucky's best player, Jamal Mashburn, fouled out.

Said Jackson, in a rather vivid turn of phrase: "Their heart got ripped out and you could see it in their eyes."

Howard made a free throw. Jackson made two. Even when Pelinka committed a foul and things again looked bleak, his teammates came through. One minute was all they had to make up a three-point difference and keep that appointment at the jewelers.

Jackson twisted like a corkscrew and scored. Fifty-six seconds, still down by a point. Now Webber with a spin move, eating the Wildcat defender's lunch. Forty-one seconds, Michigan in command. Now Rose gets fouled, goes to the line to put Kentucky to sleep. Michigan at the line? Chokin' time? No way. Rose nails them both, the second touching nothing but net.

Over, just like that.

Michigan--in again.

"We are winners," Rose said. "And winners find a way to win."

"We're better than a lot of people think we are," Jackson said.

They must be. Bad teams don't come this far. Not this often. This particular team has one game to go. Maybe it will win. Maybe it won't. Doesn't much matter. Ring or no ring, Michigan's basketball team is pointing a finger at the world.

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