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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT | BILL PLASCHKE

What Made Day Great? It's as Simple as 1-2-Tree

March 29, 1998|BILL PLASCHKE

SAN ANTONIO — This perfect day began with a tree. A trash-talking tree.

Shortly before the first game of the Final Four on Saturday, the Stanford mascot wandered over to the Kentucky players and began taunting.

"I was trying to rattle them," said sophomore Matthew Enumclaw, decked in the traditional Stanford pine. "They just looked at me funny."

This perfect day ended with a dream. A crazy dream that filled the eyes of those gym rats from nowhere.

In the Utah locker room after its upset of North Carolina, country-fresh kids were wandering exhausted among sweats, box lunches and chalk.

"We're still in awe right now," forward Alex Jensen said.

So are we.

For six glorious hours, a Final Four lived up to the hype.

For six breathtaking, horn-tooting, usher-dancing, clock-beating, sweet-swishing, defense-screaming hours Saturday, a Final Four was fabulous.

This wasn't supposed to happen. This was supposed to be like every other big event that stumbles short of expectations.

In the opener, Kentucky was supposed to pummel Stanford.

Kentucky, with its big band, its 12 perfectly smiling cheerleaders, its vaunted history.

Stanford, with its tree.

But instead, the Cardinal came within a couple of fallaway three-pointers by Jeff Sheppard of chuckling into the night before losing, 86-85, in overtime.

Sheppard is the sort of guard for which Kentucky owns a patent. He has a buzz haircut, he is from a southern county called "Fayette," he refers to his shot as "that thang."

Kris Weems, the guy blanketing him during those two late shots, is typical Stanford. Intelligent, hard-working, and refreshingly honest.

"He outplayed me and he outshot me," Weems said of Sheppard, looking the questioner directly in the eye. "I was there with him every step, and he still beat me."

In the second game, North Carolina was supposed to embarrass Utah.

North Carolina, with NBA-bound Antawn Jamison, all swagger and smiles, and that was during warmups.

Utah, with players who still suffer from the ravages of acne.

But instead, Utah showed what can happen with a little coaching, a little discipline, and a lot of nerve.

As Utah's Rick Majerus kicked around North Carolina's Bill Guthridge--was he even on the bench in the second half?--so did his players, with a 65-59 victory that proved a point.

"We showed the world that you can still win by playing below the rim," forward Britton Johnsen said.

About that nerve . . .

In the second half, the 6-foot-9 Johnsen turned to Makhtar Ndiaye, North Carolina's 6-foot-10 center, and said: "Look at me. I weigh 100 pounds and I'm kicking your butt."

Moments later, Ndiaye responded by spitting in his face. Just before he fouled out. With 15:45 left in the game.

This perfect day was filled with plenty of encounters both weird and wonderful.

Things that, one suspects, could happen only at a Final Four.

Things that should happen only at a Final Four.

This perfect day was:

* During a timeout early in overtime, five Stanford cheerleaders running to center court pretending to smoke marijuana.

It was part of a routine to accompany their band's song, "White Punks on Dope."

The Kentucky fans watched, stunned. The Stanford fans shrugged.

"Stanford rejects all things commercial," the tree said.

* Jamison kissing the floor at center court and tossed his wrist bands to an unsuspecting ballboy after the Tar Heel loss.

The ballboy promptly looked at them like, what am I supposed to do with these?

A close inspection revealed that the only member of the North Carolina party who even looked remotely emotional was a tearful stat girl.

"I feel like we just beat an NBA team," the Utes' Johnsen said.

In a way, they did.

* Mark Madsen, the Stanford battler with the dangling red mouthpiece and drenched uniform, returning to the Alamodome court in sweats after the Cardinal loss.

He received a standing ovation. Not only from Stanford fans, but also from Utah fans.

* Majerus wearing a white sweater for two hours on national television.

To those upset about constant references to his weight: If he's not bothered with calling attention to his size, why are you?

* Peter Sauer and Arthur Lee leaving the court after Stanford's loss with their arms around each other, each wearing hopeful smiles.

Let this serve as the first reminder that Stanford's top nine players are returning next year.

"I was telling him, we got one year left," Sauer said. "We got a taste of this, now we want another taste."

* Utah fans chanting, during North Carolina free throws, in hypnotic fashion, "The . . . ball . . . is . . . bigger . . . than . . . the . . . basket."

When Vince Carter missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity in the final minutes, he looked to the sky like, enough is enough. The fans roared.

* Ashley Judd, the actress and unofficial Kentucky mascot, leading cheers in her pre-shrunk Wildcat T-shirt.

Afterward, she confronted the Stanford mascot.

"You better be careful, or you're going to get technical foul," she hollered at the tree.

He laughed.

"I've been yelled at by a lot of people," he said. "But never a pretty country music singer before."

Country music singer?

* Majerus spending the entire 2 1/2 minutes talking to his team during a timeout in the final moments.

Guthridge didn't spend half that time, allowing his team to form a huddle on the floor near the Utah bench, where they pointed at each other as if coaching themselves.

* A solitary figure walking through a corridor long after the games had ended, a lunch-meat sandwich in one hand, a soda in the other.

Dean Smith, we miss you already.

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