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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Haskins Leads Underdog Gophers Against Old Nemesis Kentucky

March 29, 1997|GEORGE DOHRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS — A long time ago, Minnesota Coach Clem Haskins was a Kentuckian through and through, and might be coaching against his alma mater had Kentucky, the school, been integrated when Haskins was the Bluegrass State's best high school basketball player.

Instead, Haskins brings his Gophers into the RCA Dome tonight to face the Wildcats in the Final Four, trying to achieve the same goal he dreamed of 31 years ago when he played for Western Kentucky.

"We wanted to play them and beat them so bad," said Haskins, whose 1966 Western Kentucky team missed a chance to play Kentucky in the Mideast Regional final when it lost to Michigan.

He was also rooting for Western Kentucky in the 1971 Mideast Regional semifinal when Western Kentucky defeated Kentucky, 107-83. Haskins was then a member of the Phoenix Suns and wanted nothing more than to see the game live.

"I tried every way to try and get there to see that game," Haskins said. "And, I thought about faking an injury. But all the [Phoenix] players knew I was from Kentucky and very proud of my school and state. And all they would say is make sure I didn't fake an injury to go.

"But that was a long time ago. There was probably some hatred in my heart then, but that's not there anymore. It's another ballgame."

He means the one against the 1996-97 version of the Wildcats, and his Minnesota team, his 11th, and first in the Final Four. Despite a 31-3 record Haskins knows the feeling of being the underdog, the role of his Gophers today.

"I know everybody's favoring Kentucky because they've been here and won last year," Minnesota guard Bobby Jackson said. "But we're not thinking about what other people are saying."

Most feel Minnesota's chances hinge on a big game from Jackson, a less-than-stellar performance from Kentucky All-American Ron Mercer, and the Gophers' ability to handle the Wildcats' pressure defense.

"The main key about Kentucky is the pressure defense," Jackson said. "We've got to come out and execute and push the ball down the court."

The Wildcats may have a bigger advantage if Minnesota guard Eric Harris is unable to perform because of a shoulder injury.

"We probably won't know until game time," Haskins said. "He could not play basketball [Friday]."

Harris is one of the best on-the-ball defenders in the country and also a key to breaking the Wildcats' pressure. For those reasons, Kentucky Coach Rick Pitino laughed at remarks that he might not play.

"From every understanding I have, he's playing," Pitino said.

If he is healthy it makes for an interesting guard matchup. Jackson and Harris versus Anthony Epps and Wayne Turner.

"We've played against great backcourt players this year, so I can't say we haven't faced great backcourt teams, but this is as good as it gets, I guess," Pitino said. "But I think we have experience with Epps and outstanding explosiveness with Turner.

"I think we're both evenly matched. We could probably play each other 10 times and we could come out winning 10 times and losing 10. So, I think the team that executes the best at the end is going to come out the victor."

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