EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The pressure is off.
Because the pressure was on.
The Kentucky Wildcats finally can exhale.
They didn't blow the NCAA basketball championship in a year when it was theirs to lose.
Their pressure defense saved them last night at the Meadowlands.
The Wildcats' must-win season came down to the last few minutes of the last game, with Syracuse sniffing a major upset. The Orangemen whacked away most of an 11-point lead early in the second half, then cut a 13-point lead to two with less than five minutes to play.
"We kept coming back and back and back," reserve forward Marius Janulis said.
It was all coming down on the Wildcats. The great expectations of their demanding fans. The roars of a rowdy crowd rooting for the underdog. The ghost of Adolph Rupp, whose five titles turned Kentucky basketball into such an unyielding hothouse four decades ago.
A two-point lead with five minutes to play.
The entire state of Kentucky was on the verge of spontaneously combusting.
Kentucky coach Rick Pitino was bouncing around the sidelines, turning a lighter shade of pale.
"We had them at that point," Syracuse reserve J. B. Reafsnyder said.
But guess what? The two-point lead was enough.
On a night when it committed 24 turnovers in the face of Kentucky's nonstop full-court pressure, Syracuse was incapable of making that last run it needed to make.
The Orangemen overcame a slew of mistakes to stay close for 35 minutes, but they couldn't keep it up.
It was as if they had spent themselves overcoming all those bad passes and steals.
The turnovers created just enough points to deliver a victory to the Wildcats on a night when they missed 12 of their first 15 shots and shot 38 percent from the field.
Not since 1963 has the winning team in the title game shot such a low percentage from the field.
Wildcats fans from Paducah to Pikeville will lionize senior Tony Delk and freshman Ron Mercer for scoring a combined 44 points, but the 24 turnovers were the difference in the game.
Twenty-four turnovers delivered Kentucky's first NCAA title in 18 years -- and Pitino's first title ever after two decades of college and pro coaching.
"Their pressure definitely wears you down," Syracuse forward Todd Burgan said. "We made some turnovers that we look back on now and we shouldn't have made, silly passes when we had a man open, stuff like that. But you have to give them credit. They keep that pressure up."
The Orangemen protected the ball brilliantly in their Saturday semifinal victory over Mississippi State, in which they committed just five turnovers. Last night, point guard Lazarus Sims had seven, forward John Wallace six and Burgan five. The Wildcats had 11 steals.
"We played a great defensive team in their own right in this game, which you can tell by our shooting percentage," Pitino said. "But we won because we made the defensive plays we have made all season."
The defensive plays that kept the Wildcats ahead all night.
They turned a 10-8 deficit into a 16-10 lead after forcing three straight turnovers early in the first half.
Another three turnovers late in the first half turned a 28-28 tie into a 42-33 lead at halftime.
"We knew we were going to make turnovers against them," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said, "but we made three or four we couldn't afford."
After Syracuse cut the lead to 48-46 early in the second half, the Orangemen turned the ball over on two possessions and Kentucky scored nine straight points to build its biggest lead at 59-46 with 11: 12 to play.
Just enough room.
Syracuse began to chip away again after that. The Wildcats looked every bit the nervous, pressure-laden favorites. They missed shots. They made mistakes. Burgan hit a jumper. Wallace, who led Syracuse with 29 points, hit a three-pointer from the key. Burgan hit another three. Wallace drove the lane and dunked while being fouled. The lead was down to four.
"I give all the credit in the world to Syracuse," Pitino said.
Another jumper and two free throws from Wallace cut the lead to two with 4: 46 to play.
But two was enough.
Delk missed a jumper, but Kentucky's Walter McCarty tipped in the offensive rebound.
After Syracuse's Jason Cipolla missed a leaner, Kentucky's Derek Anderson hit a three-pointer from the corner. Just like that, the lead was back to seven. You could see Syracuse begin to wilt. The Orangemen had come back and back and back, but they wouldn't again.
"All year," Pitino said, "the players heard it from everyone, 'Win it all, win it all, win it all.' "
In the end, they did. Kentucky's fans should be satisfied at least for a few months.
Unburdened at last, the Wildcats danced as they celebrated at midcourt and then went to one basket to cut down the nets.
"I'm proudest of our team for playing that untouchable defense," Pitino said.
And pressure off.
Pub Date: 4/02/96