INDIANAPOLIS -- Their star player was bothered by one of his worst shooting games of the season and was hampered by cramps in both legs. Their vaunted pressure defense seemed on the verge of being broken by Minnesota guard Bobby Jackson.
Kentucky wobbled a bit last night in the second half of its NCAA tournament semifinal game against the Gophers at the RCA Dome, but the reigning national champion never fell. While Ron Mercer never found his stroke or his legs, the rest of the Wildcats found both in a 78-69 victory.
"We beat a team that's as physically and mentally tough as any team I've ever coached against since I've been at Kentucky," said coach Rick Pitino. "I have tremendous admiration for Minnesota and I also have a lot of admiration for our team. We overcame a lot of problems from foul trouble to cramping to a great team and were still able to dig deep and win this ballgame."
Six different players scored during a crucial 17-5 run midway through the half that turned a one-point deficit into an 11-point lead to put Kentucky (35-4) comfortably ahead. Jackson, the Big Ten's Player of the Year, also was held without a field goal during a stretch of more than 10 minutes.
The victory put the Wildcats into tomorrow's championship game against Arizona, which upset North Carolina, 66-58, in the first semifinal. It will make for an interesting piece of Final Four minutiae: it marks the first time since 1951 that teams with the same nickname will meet for the title.
It will give Kentucky a chance to become the second team this decade to win back-to-back championships, following Duke in 1991 and 1992. The defeat ended a magical run to its first Final Four for Minnesota (31-4) and a marvelous senior year for Jackson.
"They did a super job of pressuring us," said Minnesota coach Clem Haskins, whose team started the game with four straight turnovers and wound up committing 26, a whopping 12 more than its average. "I'd like to congratulate our team. We're disappointed, but we got beat by a great team, the defending champions. They'll be tough to beat in the final."
Jackson led the Gophers with 23 points, but his near-scoreless drought with the game on the line was costly. Mercer, the Southeastern Conference's Player of the Year, led the Wildcats with 19 points, but his 7-for-21 shooting will likely give Arizona some hope going into the final.
"As far as my shooting, sometimes you're going to make them and sometimes you're not," said Mercer, whose cramps hampered his jumping ability. "I didn't get enough [legs] on my shot."
Jackson simply didn't get enough shots down the stretch. Or at least the quick guard didn't take them, trying to get his teammates involved in Minnesota's comeback from a 10-point first-half deficit. Or perhaps the Wildcats prevented him from getting many off.
After Jackson scored three straight times -- including a three to put the Gophers ahead briefly, 52-51, with 10: 49 left -- he took only one shot in Minnesota's next 13 possessions. It was during this stretch that Kentucky built its lead up to 11, 68-57, on a three by reserve guard Cameron Mills.
"They did a great job defensively," said Jackson, who would wind up shooting 8-for-18 from the field and had six turnovers. "I ++ really didn't want to force anything. When they saw I was hot, they made some adjustments."
Said Pitino: "What we did with a player like Bobby Jackson was try to make sure that two people were around him any time he got within 15 feet of the basket. Their guards go to the line more than any team we play and the way to stop them from going to the line is to trap them."
While Jackson didn't get any help -- junior forward Sam Jacobson was held to 10 points on 4-for-12 shooting, and Midwest Regional final hero Quincy Lewis missed eight of nine -- the other Wildcats made up for Mercer's problems.
Senior guard Anthony Epps finished with 13 points, seven assists and five rebounds. Junior guard Wayne Turner contributed eight points and six assists, while making only one turnover in 39 minutes while applying much of the pressure on Jackson.
Kentucky also got 28 points from its bench, 10 of them from Mills as well as seven points and six rebounds from fifth-year senior Jared Prickett, who missed last year's championship run after knee surgery. The Gophers, who rely on their depth to wear down opponents, got only 13 points from their bench.
"I've had games this year when my shot wasn't falling, and my teammates have picked me up," said Mercer. "I don't think I've got to carry the load every night."
Said Mills: "Everyone on this team knows that Ron Mercer is our star. But we're not a one-man team. I think we've shown that when Derek [Anderson] went out and we showed that tonight."
Anderson, the senior All-American who hadn't played since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee Jan. 18, came in to a roaring ovation from the Kentucky faction in the crowd of 47,028 to hit a pair of technical free throws called against Haskins early in the second half.
Pitino also used junior guard Allen Edwards, who missed the first four games of the tournament with a hairline fracture of the ankle, for 11 minutes. But he knows that Monday night's game might come down to Mercer, who as a freshman last season came off the bench for 20 points in helping the Wildcats beat Syracuse for the title in East Rutherford, N.J.
"It's something a lot of people don't really get a chance to do once, but we've put ourselves in a position to win a second one," said Mercer, who is NBA-bound. "The fact that I'm leaving next year, I want to take the most with me."
Pub Date: 3/30/97