EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Seven years after he arrived to restore Kentucky's scandalized program to prominence, coach Rick Pitino delivered on the promise with a 76-67 victory over Syracuse in the NCAA championship game last night.
The Wildcats survived 38 percent shooting, and a surprisingly resilient Syracuse team to claim their sixth NCAA championship, and first in 18 years before 19,229 at the Meadowlands.
They won because they got 24 points from senior Tony Delk, who hit a record-tying seven three-pointers, and 20 more from freshman Ron Mercer, who hit eight of 12 shots from the field.
But they also won because they remembered last year's shocking regional loss against North Carolina and a zone defense.
"Without question, I believe we're national champions today because of last year's North Carolina game," Pitino said. "That game, we took a lot of bad, forced shots [from beyond the arc]. We took 27 [three-pointers] tonight, and I can honestly say 27 were great shots."
Syracuse came back from a 13-point second-half deficit to get within two points, at 64-62, with a 16-5 run that included nine points from All-America forward John Wallace (29 points).
Then Kentucky's Walter McCarty tipped in a missed shot and Derek Anderson fired in a three-pointer to give the Wildcats breathing room down the stretch.
Kentucky also got a big defensive play from backup center Mark Pope, who deflected a pass from Syracuse's Lararus Sims in the low post and then was fouled by Wallace.
Wallace fouled out of the game on the play, and when Pope converted both ends of a one-and-one, Kentucky had a 74-67 lead with 1: 06 to play.
The loss denied Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim his first national title in his second NCAA final.
"We didn't do a good job with Delk in the first half, but Mercer was one guy that came in and hurt us," Boeheim said.
"We put ourselves in position to win the game, and they made great plays. They've been the best team in the country most of the year with Massachusetts."
Jason Cipolla missed a three for Syracuse with 50 seconds left, and Sims followed with another miss with less than 40 seconds remaining as the clock ticked down on Kentucky's championship.
"They showed tremendous heart and guts," Pitino said of Syracuse, which also got 19 points from Todd Burgan.
"I'm proud of my guys," Boeheim said. "They came back. My kids had so much heart all year and in this tournament, and I think they gained respect.
"I told them at halftime, it is enough when you give everything you have."
Delk was named the most outstanding player in the Final Four, which was particularly satisfying for the senior guard. Despite being the team's leading scorer, there had been whispers that Delk could not deliver in big games.
In last season's Southeast Regional final loss to North Carolina, Delk missed 14 of 21 shots (his teammates missed 40 of 54). But in the Midwest Regional final victory against Wake Forest, Delk scored 25 points on 9-for-13 shooting. In the two Final Four victories, he totaled 44 points on 15-for-36 shooting.
Syracuse's 2-3 zone made the strongest statement in the first 17 minutes of the game. It allowed the Orangemen not only to stay in the game, but allowed them to play at a favorable pace.
With three minutes to play, after Wallace hit a three-pointer on a cross-court pass from Sims, Syracuse had a 28-28 tie and Kentucky was shooting poorly.
But the Wildcats finished the half with a 14-5 run that opened a 42-33 halftime lead and gave them a semblance of control in a ragged first 20 minutes.
Kentucky went to its old staple, the three-point shot, in the run. Delk sandwiched a pair of threes around one by Mercer to take a 40-30 lead with 1: 11 left.
Mercer, a freshman forward who came off the bench to score 11 points in the first half, broke the tie at 28 with a three-point play (goal, foul).
Delk finished the half with 18 points on six threes, as Kentucky hit eight of 15 from beyond the arc. Delk was six of 10 from the field, but six of seven from the three-point line.
The Orangemen were led by Wallace with 15 points. The 6-foot-8 power forward had two of Syracuse's four threes.
Both teams were tight at the game's outset. Syracuse didn't score until Wallace followed his own miss 1: 28 into the game. Kentucky was scoreless on its first four possessions before Delk found three-point range.
That triggered a series of 8-0 runs. Kentucky went up 8-2, Syracuse countered at 10-8 and Kentucky responded at 16-10.
Another 8-0 run a few minutes later sent Syracuse back on top at 21-18.
Down 18-13, Sims drove on Kentucky's Anthony Epps, made a bank shot and converted a foul. That cut the deficit to 18-16.
Delk and Epps both missed threes for Kentucky, and then Sims threw a lob pass for Wallace that went in -- for a three-point basket and 19-18 lead.
After another Kentucky miss, Wallace hit a put-back to make it 21-18.
Syracuse's lead went to 23-20 on a jumper by Wallace with 6: 35 to play.
Back-to-back threes by Mercer and Delk got Kentucky a 26-25 advantage. A dunk by Mercer and a three-pointer by Wallace turned out a 28-28 tie.
Kentucky hit just 15 of 35 shots in the first half against the Syracuse zone; the Orangemen hit 13 of 26.
Kentucky's press forced 13 turnovers and the Wildcats cashed in 15 points.
The second half started just like the first -- with missed shots and turnovers. Wallace finally broke the ice with a leaner at 17: 37. But Kentucky answered with two fast-break layups by Walter McCarty and Mercer for a 46-35 lead.
Pub Date: 4/02/96