EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Kentucky got 24 points from senior Tony Delk and 20 from freshman Ron Mercer to beat Syracuse, 76-67, last night at the Meadowlands and end the Wildcats' 18-year national title drought.
The victory in the NCAA championship game was Kentucky's first since 1978, and came after season-long expectations for coach Rick Pitino's team to do so.
The Wildcats (34-2) used a 14-5 finishing kick at the end of the first half to take control of the game, then rejected several charges by the Orangemen (29-9).
Syracuse got within two points, at 64-62, before big baskets by Walter McCarty and Derek Anderson gave Kentucky some breathing room down the stretch.
McCarty scored on a tip and Anderson hit a three-pointer.
Down 46-35 early in the second half, Syracuse used an 11-2 run to cut the deficit to 48-46. All-American forward John Wallace, who scored 29 points, started the run with a three-point play, and Todd Burgan scored six of the next eight Syracuse points to make it a two-point game.
But Syracuse went cold and fouls began piling up. Wallace picked up his third foul with 14: 19 left, and Burgan got his fourth with 11: 12 to play.
Meanwhile, the Orangemen went scoreless for nearly four minutes and Kentucky used an 11-0 run to take a 13-point lead.
Mercer hit a three-pointer and a bank shot in the run. Delk, named the tournament's MVP, hit a three from the corner, and when he was fouled by Burgan, converted a four-point play. That made it 59-46.
Then it was Syracuse's turn. Down 13, Wallace scored nine of the Orangemen's next 16 points to cut the deficit to two. His dunk, and foul shot, with 7: 58 left made it 62-58.
Two minutes later, he dropped in a layup off a spin move on the baseline, and he hit two free throws with 4: 46 left to cap a 16-5 run and get Syracuse within 64-62.
One more time, the Wildcats withstood the pressure, though. A tip by McCarty and a big three-pointer by Anderson pushed the Kentucky lead to 69-62.
The two teams traded baskets to get to 71-64, and then Wallace picked up his fourth foul on a charge that had coach Jim Boeheim screaming on the sideline.
After Walker hit a free throw, Burgan sank a three-pointer to get Syracuse within 72-65.
But the frantic stretch that followed cost Syracuse a turnover and the services of Wallace.
Kentucky's Mark Pope lost the ball on the offensive end, but got it back with a steal on the defensive end. He was fouled from behind by Wallace, ending the standout senior's Syracuse career.
Pope converted both ends of a one-and-one to make it 74-67 with 1: 07 to play.
Jason Cipolla missed a three for Syracuse with 50 seconds left, and Lazarus Sims followed with another miss with less than 40 seconds remaining as the clock ticked down on Kentucky's championship.
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 McCarty and Mercer for a 46-35 lead.
Pub Date: 4/02/96