Title this one Syracuse vs. Kentucky Wildcats turn back UMass, 81-74

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The critics said Kentucky would melt under the white-hot glow of a tight game, that it was too dominating for its own good.

Last night, in the hottest of ovens -- one stoked by the irrepressible Marcus Camby -- the Wildcats answered the cynics with a strong heartbeat and a steady hand. There was no meltdown.


For Kentucky, there will be a tomorrow, though, thanks to a frenetic 81-74 victory over relentless Massachusetts in a national semifinal game before 19,229 at the Meadowlands.

The Wildcats (33-2) will attempt to complete their championship mission tomorrow night against Syracuse, a 77-69 winner over Mississippi State.


On the question of clutch, even Kentucky's coach, Rick Pitino, didn't have an answer until last night.

"People question, [and] it's a legitimate question," he said after Kentucky reached the NCAA's title game for the eighth time, but first since 1978. "How do you know? I can't tell you we're great, I can't tell you we're not.

"I always felt we were going to play very well in close games, because we're an improved free-throw shooting team, and we're a good passing team. I couldn't give you an answer. But tonight when they made their run, the thing I feel best about is there was no panic in the eyes of our players."

The Wildcats had their chances to panic. They led Massachusetts by 15 points two minutes into the second half, and by 10 with just more than seven minutes left.

And then, like they always do, the Minutemen (35-2) kept coming back. Led by Camby, who had 25 points, eight rebounds and six blocked shots, UMass trimmed the deficit to 63-60 with five minutes left.

Again, after falling behind 71-61, they cut the difference to three, at 73-70.

But Kentucky wouldn't fall.

"We got the 'W,' " said Antoine Walker, who had 14 points and four steals. "We practice every day against each other. We go to the wire in scrimmage situations. That's what people don't see."


A follow-tip by Baltimore's Donta Bright got UMass within 63-60. After a missed Kentucky free throw, Carmelo Travieso missed a hurried three-pointer, and one possession later, Camby missed a fall-away shot and that opportunity was lost.

"We had two possessions and got away from how we play," said Massachusetts coach John Calipari. "We took a bad fader and a three, and barely caught it and threw it at the rim and got an air ball. We had our chances."

True to the character of the team, there was one more charge left for the Minutemen. Camby scored five of seven UMass points, and then Edgar Padilla hit a three to cut Kentucky's lead to 73-70 with 1: 02 left.

But Kentucky scored on its next three possessions. Mark Pope converted two free throws to make it 75-70. After a Padilla miss, the Wildcats' Anthony Epps rebounded and threw a court-length pass to Walker, who dunked, and it was 77-70.

After Giddel Padilla missed a driving layup, Kentucky's Tony Delk (20 points) hit a layup at the other end with 27 seconds left.

"They made big plays," Camby said of the game's final turn at 73-70. "We were scrambling. A couple of guys broke and made easy layups."


Kentucky hit its last eight free throws, and nine of the last 10, to do what it couldn't do in November, when the Minutemen won by 10.

The Wildcats won with their thoroughbred bench -- Jeff Sheppard scored seven points in the final six minutes after Delk suffered leg cramps -- and with double-team defense that clamped onto Camby every time he got the ball.

"We were going to suffocate them at every level," Pitino said. "We were not going to let them see an option. We thought it would be very similar to the Wake Forest game."

Kentucky's pressure defense produced a dozen steals, 19 turnovers, and handcuffed UMass' two guards. Travieso (limited 26 minutes by early foul trouble) and Edgar Padilla hit just five of 17 shots from the field to negate what the Minutemen got inside from Camby and Bright (15 points, nine rebounds).

"Ninety-nine percent of teams would go under with the pressure we were applying," Pitino said. "They're a remarkable group."

But Massachusetts' remarkable run is over.


"We played hard," said Calipari, whose Minutemen held the No. 1 ranking most of the season. "It's just that they played with a little more emotion than we played. If you were wondering why I was jumping, I was trying to get them to go or reach down.

"But I thought the game was played and unfolded the way we wanted it to unfold. We gave ourselves a chance to win against a great basketball club. . . . We never stopped playing."

Final Four

At East Rutherford, N.J.

Semifinals: Yesterday Syracuse 77, Mississippi State 69

Kentucky 81, Massachusetts 74


Championship: Tomorrow Syracuse (29-8) vs. Kentucky (33-2), 9: p.m., chs. 13, 9

Going for 6

A win in tomorrow night's championship game would give Kentucky the second-most NCAA basketball titles. The schools with three or more:

11 titles: UCLA.

5 titles: : Indiana, Kentucky.

+ 3 titles: : North Carolina.


Pub Date: 3/31/96