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Kentucky in Final Four With Its Elite Eight

West: Wildcats don't have depth and talent of last year's national championship team, but that's not evident in 72-59 victory over Utah.

March 23, 1997|From Associated Press

SAN JOSE — Eight was more than enough for the Kentucky Wildcats.

Depleted by injuries and without most of last season's national championship team, Kentucky used a smothering press and Ron Mercer's 21 points to return to the Final Four with a 72-59 victory over Utah on Saturday.

The Wildcats suited up just eight players for the West Regional final. But that didn't prevent Kentucky from maintaining enough defensive pressure to throttle All-American forward Keith Van Horn and the Utes.

"I'd hate to see what they'd be like at full strength," marveled Utah guard Ben Caton.

Mercer made 10 of 17 shots, including two in a row to turn back a second-half Utah rally, as the Wildcats (34-4) advanced against Minnesota in the national semifinals.

Mercer, a sophomore All-American, has announced he will make himself eligible for this June's NBA draft.

"He is a pro shooter," said Kentucky coach Rick Pitino. "He comes off the screen, elevates and shoots as well as anybody in the game, and that's why I think he'll have tremendous success at the next level."

Anthony Epps had 15 points and Wayne Turner 12 for Kentucky, which will be making its 12th Final Four appearance.

The Kentucky full-court press forced 17 turnovers, often leading to fast-break baskets. The Wildcats kept up relentless pressure, even though their depth had significantly dwindled with injuries to guard Derek Anderson and forward Allen Edwards. .

Only five of Kentucky players were on last season's team, which had four players gon on to the NBA.

"That is what makes this year so much more special," said Kentucky guard Cameron Mills. "Look at the talent we lost to the NBA. Look at the talent we lost in Allen, and look at the talent we lost in Derek."

Van Horn scored 15 points and was only five of12 from the field. He often was triple-teamed by Kentucky's collapsing defense.

"I've never been switched on like I was," Van Horn said. "I was never really able to get in the offensive flow. Kentucky has the athletes to do that."

Michael Doleac had 13 points and Andre Miller 11 for Utah, which had its 14-game winning streak snapped. The Utes (29-4) were seeking their first Final Four spot since 1966.

The Wildcats outscored the Utes 28-7 over a 15-minute span of the first half and held Utah to a season-low 24 points at halftime.

The Wildcats extended their lead to 11 points early in the second half before Van Horn hit a layup and Miller added two buckets to bring Utah within 40-35 with 13:56 left.

A three-pointshot by Miller pulled the Utes to 41-38, and Drew Hansen's three-pointer from the top of the key tied it 43-43 with 9:32 left.

But Mercer, who had been held scoreless in the first 10 minutes of the second half, then made two jump shots that began a 9-2 run that culminated with a three-pointbasket by Epps.

With 4:40 remaining, Miller reinjured the right hand he had hurt in Thursday night's regional semifinal against Stanford. That deprived the Utes of their best weapon against the press, and the Wildcats pounced with Miller in the locker room.

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