MINNEAPOLIS — MINNEAPOLIS - They snipped slowly and carefully, until each strand of nylon had been cut away from the rim. Kentucky forward Antoine Walker then pointed his teammates to the other end of the floor, where the procedure began anew until both baskets were bare.
It took longer for the top-seeded Wildcats to dismember the nets at the Metrodome or, as one of their many fans called it, "My Old Kentucky Dome" than it did to dismantle second-seeded Wake Forest during a frighteningly routine 83-63 victory in yesterday's NCAA Midwest Regional final.
Holding the Demon Deacons to only four baskets in the first half, and All-America center Tim Duncan without one for the first 28 minutes, Kentucky was never really challenged. Though they watched Wake Forest cut a 28-point deficit to 11, the Wildcats never thought their trip to East Rutherford, N.J., for this week's Final Four was in jeopardy.
Well, maybe one did.
"After we called timeout, I told them, 'If you attack the basket, you go to the Meadowlands,' " said Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, whose team will face Massachusetts there on Saturday and get a chance to reverse one of its two defeats. " 'And if you don't, you go home to Lexington.' "
The Wildcats, particularly senior guard Tony Delk, heeded their coach's words. After a 26-9 run by the Demon Deacons had trimmed Kentucky's lead to 66-55 with 4: 18 remaining, Delk hit two long jumpers and then was fouled on a three-point shot. His three free throws gave Kentucky a 73-57 lead with 2: 03 left and Wake Forest was done.
Delk, who finished with 25 points, emerged from a recent shooting slump to hit nine of 13, including four of six HTC three-pointers. Conversely, Duncan made only two of seven shots and was constantly double-teamed. The 6-foot-10 junior center finished with respectable numbers 14 points, 16 rebounds and four blocked shots but was hardly a factor.
"They were very aggressive with their traps, they didn't give me any room," said Duncan. "It probably was the best job [of defense] I've seen this year."
Unlike other teams, the Wildcats didn't simply concentrate on Duncan. They also put extreme pressure on the perimeter in the first half, holding forward Ricky Peral without a field-goal attempt and forcing point guard Rusty LaRue into a jittery performance. LaRue, playing the point in the absence of the injured Tony Rutland, finished with three points, four turnovers and no assists.
The win sent Kentucky (32-2) to its second Final Four in Pitino's seven years in Lexington, and his third as a head coach. It also helped the Wildcats become the winningest men's program in Division I, their 1,648 victories one ahead of North Carolina. The defeat for Wake (26-6) ended the ACC's eight-year run of sending at least one team to the Final Four.
"Today's game, in a strange way, was a microcosm of our year," said Wake Forest coach Dave Odom. "At times, when our team seemed headed for disaster because of injuries or not playing well or whatever it happened to be, every single time our team seemed to regroup, fed off each other and the end result of that experience was that we got better. I think that was true today. I'd say a lesser team couldn't do that."
There's another way to look at his team's comeback: the Demon Deacons had to get better, while Kentucky couldn't keep up its relentless pressure defense and precision offense the entire afternoon. After keeping things respectably close for the first 10 minutes Wake Forest trailed 16-11 despite having more turnovers than field-goal attempts at one point it got awfully ugly for Wake Forest.
The players were not the only ones to lose their composure. Shortly after Duncan shuffled his feet trying to put up a rebound follow, the normally placid Odom barked at his star, "Tim Duncan, put the ball in the dang basket." (Actually, he didn't say dang.)
Kentucky took a 38-19 lead into its locker room. The Demon Deacons were 4-for-18 from the field at halftime, and had made 12 of their 20 turnovers.
"We've done that before," said Anderson. "Nothing against Morehead State, but this was Wake Forest."
Nothing against the Demon Deacons, but without Rutland, they are a one-dimensional team. Assistant coach Ernie Nestor likened it to "playing with one hand tied behind your back. . . . This isn't fiction, this is reality. This isn't a Chip Hilton novel."
And for Kentucky, this wasn't Massachusetts.
But if yesterday proved anything, it showed that Kentucky is versatile enough to blow out the opposition no matter at what pace the game is played.
"We beat them at their own game," Delk, the regional's most valuable player, said of the deliberate Demon Deacons.
The Wildcats showed something else: Though they end games quickly, they cut down nets slowly. The longer it takes, the more enjoyable the celebration.
Pub Date: 3/24/96