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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT | BILL PLASCHKE

Smith Wins the Most Important Race of All

March 31, 1998|BILL PLASCHKE

SAN ANTONIO — After the cameras had been darkened, the bands had shut down, the nets had been swiped, Tubby Smith had one last order for his Kentucky Wildcats.

"Get in here!" he shouted to players dancing in the seats, and to center court they ran.

"Get down!" he shouted, and together they grabbed each other's shoulders and fell to the floor on which they had just won the national championship.

"Our Father. . . ." he prayed, and they followed him, just as they had followed him through the last three wondrous weeks, eyes closed, clutching tight.

The previous 40 minutes Monday belonged to the players, but this moment, this game, this championship, belongs to their coach.

Kentucky 78, Utah 69.

Tubby Smith 1, The Legacy of Adolph Rupp 0.

All weekend everyone had properly been tip-toeing around the issue of race, even when it was wrongly exploited.

But then Smith won the big one. Won it with the third consecutive comeback. Won it by outsmarting the hottest coach in America.

The look in Smith's eyes as he glanced to the sky at the final buzzer, his loquacious wife's inability to comment, his oldest son's hardened words, all spoke to an issue that finally cannot be ignored.

A black coach has won a championship at a university whose most famous coach refused to recruit blacks.

The first men's black coach at Kentucky has become the school's first coach to win a national title in his first year there.

With about half the state whispering he couldn't.

Maybe this is only basketball, maybe this doesn't change anything.

But maybe, in some small way, with the world watching another outsider kick in another door and decorate that room in strength, maybe something gets better.

It was Kentucky's night. It was Tubby Smith's night. It is no small feat that those were one and the same.

"Everyone said he's not Rick Pitino, he's not Rick Pitino," said Wildcat Cameron Mills, referring to Smith's celebrated predecessor. "And you know what? He's not Rick Pitino. And we won it."

While university officials now claim that early opposition was a myth, I'm a born and raised Kentuckian, and I heard those whispers.

So, apparently, did Smith's son, G.G., a guard at University of Georgia. He sat in his father's bench seat late Monday, watching Dad stagger around the court as if dazed, hugging players and officials. His smile was hard.

"A lot of people doubted him," G.G. said. "But he hung in there tough. He blocked out all those people who said he couldn't do it."

Nobody is saying it now. A restless crowd that would have been furious if he had not erased that 10-point half lead, he turned them delirious.

The game ended, and they immediately chanted "Tub-by, Tub-by" followed by "M-V-P, M-V-P."

And you know what? They were right.

Indeed, Mills made a couple of big three-pointers, and Evans made a couple more, and Sheppard kept running the ball inside. This truly was a team deal, happening so methodically it almost didn't seem real.

But behind every move there was Tubby, coaching just as intensely Utah genius Rick Majerus, only with a bigger scowl, a harder edge.

It was Smith who concocted the defensive changes that turned Utah's 57% shooting into 30% shooting in the second half.

Michael Doleac, the Utah center who scored 12 points in the first half, was held to only three free throws in the second half. That's nine of those comeback points right there.

"Coach Smith told us to give baseline on their big men, force them inside, double team them more," said Scott Padgett. "And it worked."

It was Smith who encouraged his team to keep throwing up bombs when, amazingly, they did not connect on a true outside shot until four minutes into the second half.

"He told us the shooting would come," Sheppard said. "He told us to only worry about rebounding and defense."

Finally, it was Smith, coaching possession by possession down the stretch, who made the move of the game with less than a minute left.

Kentucky led, 70-66, when Wayne Turner slipped and was called for traveling. Utah had the ball, their best last chance to make move.

And what does the coach of one of the country's best man-to-man defenses do? He orders them into a zone. Because of that zone, Utah's Andre Miller discovered the two upraised arms of Heshimu Evans when attempted a three pointer.

Because of that zone, the three-pointer was blocked, Kentucky recovered the ball, Padgett was fouled, converted two free throws, and moments later the game was over.

And which point many Kentucky players and fans cried. But not Tubby Smith.

He said part of him didn't believe. He said he turned to C.M. Newton, the Kentucky athletic director who hired him, who many years ago also had the courage to integrate sports at the University of Alabama.

"I asked Coach Newton, 'Did we really win the national championship?' Somebody pinch me," Smith said.

Part of him, it seemed, was too humble to show emotion.

"I never look at it like it's me, because it's not," he said. "It's the players, it's the program."

But for the most important night of a long college basketball season, maybe the most important night of many basketball seasons, it was about Tubby Smith.

You could see it in his eyes.

You could hear it in his prayer.

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