SAN JOSE, CALIF. — SAN JOSE, Calif. -- They lost any chance they had of eliciting our sympathy, but the Kentucky Wildcats were thrilled to give that up in exchange for beating Utah in the West Regional final yesterday.
They have waged a subtle campaign to portray themselves as victims in the wake of star guard Derek Anderson's knee injury in January, but no one is going to feel sorry for them now that they're postmarked for the Final Four for the second consecutive year and the third time in five years.
Few people were feeling sorry for them anyway; feeling sorry for the Wildcats is like feeling sorry for Microsoft, or the Yankees, or one of those royal families that owns all the oil wells. In a world full of victims, real and imagined, it would be hard to find a poorer candidate for compassion.
Now, after their 72-59 victory yesterday, they're about as pitiable as Michael Jordan.
"We have overcome a lot of adversity this year," coach Rick Pitino said.
OK, maybe it is, indeed, slightly miraculous that they're headed back to the Final Four despite losing four players off last season's championship team to the NBA draft and, then, losing Anderson and backup guard Allen Edwards to injuries.
But they still put a formidable team on the floor yesterday, a team so skillful and quick that Utah, winner of 28 of 31 games, was rendered clearly inferior.
"They're very, very good," Utah guard Ben Caton said. "I'd hate to see what they'd be like at full strength."
The Wildcats had the best player on the floor, forward Ron Mercer, who hit 10 of 17 shots, scored 21 points and showed everyone why he will be among the first three players picked in the next NBA draft.
He was a pro among amateurs, repeatedly coming off screens and leaping high in the air for jumpers.
"We had hands in his face and he still hit the shots," Utah coach Rick Majerus said. "We did a good job on him. He was just too good."
The Wildcats also had plenty of talent besides Mercer. They had Wayne Turner, a high school All-American at point guard; Anthony Epps, a starter on last year's championship team; and a deep supply of frontcourt players who were tough enough to dominate rebounding and agile enough to operate Pitino's relentless pressure defense.
Two Kentucky reserves, Jared Prickett and Nazr Mohammed, had more rebounds (17) than Utah's starting frontcourt (15).
The Utes fared better than last year, when Kentucky beat them by 31 points in the regional semifinals. But the Wildcats still dominated yesterday, outscoring the Utes by 20 points over the game's last 35 minutes.
"I remember last year when they just kept sending in waves of great players," Caton said. "They didn't do as much of that this year, but they still have very high quality players."
They also have the best system in the game, with all due respect to Dean Smith and North Carolina.
It's a system based on playing all-out defense and taking opponents out of their offensive routines.
Utah was averaging 75 points a game, but scored only 24 in the first half.
"We were never able to get into a comfortable flow offensively," said Keith Van Horn, Utah's star forward, whose 15 points were seven below his season average. "They were doubling me down low, switching real quick and stopping up our passing lanes."
Said Majerus: "They presented us with a lot of problems. They're just so quick. We had nowhere to turn to get a shot in some situations. Every time we made an adjustment, they countered. We ran out of adjustments."
The Utes still rallied in the second half; with Van Horn out of sync, point guard Andre Miller led a run that brought the Utes from 11 points down into a tie at 43 with 10 minutes to play. A sellout crowd at the San Jose Arena stood and roared.
Pitino called a timeout and told the players to start getting the ball to Mercer, who hadn't scored in the second half after a 15-point first half.
Mercer responded with two jumpers that pushed the Wildcats back into the lead for good.
"He's a pro shooter," Pitino said. "He can come off a screen, catch the ball and elevate [for a shot] as well as anyone in the game."
The Utes were still within five points when Miller injured his right hand and came out with 4: 42 left. Turner immediately stole the ball from Miller's replacement, freshman Jordie McTavish, and the Wildcats scored seven points in 77 seconds to seal the game.
"I knew he was a freshman," Turner said, "and it looked like he didn't know what play they were running. He just left the ball out there in my face. I had no choice but to take it."
A few minutes later, the Wildcats were celebrating at midcourt.
"After we lost our first game [to Clemson] I told our equipment manager that I'd take a .500 season," Pitino said. "We practiced terribly for the first five or six weeks."
Such a tale of woe.
"But," Pitino added, "we have come a long way."
Same time, next year
How defending national champions have fared in the NCAA tournament since it expanded to 64 teams:
Year .. .. Champion .. .. .. Next year
1985 .. .. Villanova . .. .. 2nd round
1986 .. .. Louisville ... .. No bid
.. .. Indiana ... .. .. 1st round
1988 .. .. Kansas . .. .. .. No bid
1989 .. .. Michigan .. .. .. 2nd round
1990 .. .. UNLV ... .. .. .. Final Four
1991 .. .. Duke ... .. .. .. Champion
1992 .. .. Duke ... .. .. .. 2nd round
1993 .. .. N. Carolina .. .. 2nd round
1994 .. .. Arkansas .. .. .. Runner-up
.. .. UCLA ... .. .. .. 1st round
1996 .. .. Kentucky
Pub Date: 3/23/97