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These 'Cats Can Dance

Game 2: Kentucky keeps pressure on Minnesota and earns a chance to defend championship, 78-69.

March 30, 1997|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS — Spent, staggering and challenged by another formidable foe, Kentucky dug down a little deeper in search of something extra.

Again, the Wildcats found what they needed--just enough to survive.

Pushed but yet to find their breaking point, the defending national champions willed themselves past Minnesota, 78-69, Saturday night in the semifinals before 47,028 at the RCA Dome.

Now, the weary Wildcats will drag themselves into one final battle. Arizona is all that stands between Kentucky and consecutive national championships, and Coach Rick Pitino believes his team's well isn't dry yet.

"We've had to overcome so much this season," said Pitino, whose Wildcats were hit hard by graduation and injuries. "We're not last year's team, but I've never coached a team with this much heart in my life--and I mean that.

"We're tired and we're banged up, but these guys just keep digging in and playing aggressively. It's remarkable. We just keep coming and coming."

Kentucky (35-4) didn't let up in winning its 11th consecutive tournament game. On Monday, the Wildcats go after their seventh national title.

The road back to the championship game wasn't easy for Kentucky before Saturday, so why should the Final Four have been any different?

Kentucky threw everything it had at Minnesota (31-4), but the Gophers wouldn't stay in the hole.

Kentucky, as it is prone to do, jumped ahead early in this battle of No. 1 seeded teams.

Pressing, trapping and shooting three-point baskets as well as ever, Kentucky took a 29-19 lead with 7:32 to go before halftime on a jump shot by All-American forward Ron Mercer.

But the Wildcats cooled off, Minnesota outrebounded Kentucky, 23-15, in the half and the Gophers cut the halftime lead to 36-31.

"They are an incredibly physical team, probably the most physical we've played all season," said Kentucky guard Anthony Epps, who had 13 points and seven assists. "It's real hard to keep them off the boards."

But Minnesota appeared to be wilting against Kentucky's swarming press. The Gophers committed 15 first-half turnovers and the game's tempo was much faster than Minnesota Coach Clem Haskins would have preferred.

"We came out a little anxious and we didn't take care of the ball in the first half," standout Gopher guard Bobby Jackson said. "We talked about that [at halftime], and I think we were OK once we got those jitters out."

It certainly looked that way. Kentucky, which forced 26 turnovers, still had success with its press after halftime--but Minnesota hung around behind Jackson's inspired play.

The Big Ten player of the year scored 23 points, including seven points during a 9-0 run that jolted Kentucky. Jackson's three-point basket capped the run and gave Minnesota its only lead of the game, 52-51, with 10:52 to play.

"They're a great team and they refused to quit," said Kentucky forward Allen Edwards, who sat out the Wildcats' previous two tournament games with an ankle injury. "But we've faced these types of situations all year. Coach Pitino says we all have a lot of heart--and that's what we showed."

And Pitino provided the Wildcats an extra morale boost when he sent star swingman Derek Anderson into the game with 14:31 left in the second half to shoot free throws after Haskins was assessed a technical foul. Anderson has been out since Jan. 18 because of torn right knee ligament, and seeing him on the court, albeit briefly, gave the Wildcats a charge.

"Coach took me out right after I made the shots, so I really didn't have too much time to think about what was going on," Anderson said. "But the guys were excited, so I was happy to help."

Mercer, who had 19 points, was fighting leg cramps and Kentucky had foul problems down the stretch. Minnesota tied the score, 54-54, with 8:24 to play, but that was only delaying the inevitable.

Kentucky summoned what it needed and went on a 14-3 run over the next 4:16. A three-point basket by guard Cameron Mills gave Kentucky a 68-57 lead and Jackson knew what hit them.

"They just shut us down and went on a run to end it," Jackson said. "I mean, it was kind of incredible. They just completely shut us down, but they are the champions and that's what champions do."

That's what Pitino loves to hear.

"We just keep finding a way," said Pitino, whose team would become the first repeat national champion since Duke in 1991 and '92.

"But we're going to have to find something even more to get past a truly great Arizona team."

So next up is the Wildcats vs. Wildcats. Mercer said he doesn't have much left, but he has enough left for one more game.

"We've got a chance to do something a lot of people never get a chance to do," said Mercer, a sophomore who has already declared himself eligible for the NBA draft. "I want to be remembered for going out and winning two national championships and being part of this Kentucky team."

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