INDIANAPOLIS -- Kentucky's reign ended with bloody elbows and chins, with four players fouling out, with overtime, with exhaustion, and yes, with honor.
The Wildcats' magnificent obsession for back-to-back NCAA titles met its match against an incredibly tough-minded Arizona team last night. When Kentucky relinquished its hold on the championship in a fiercely played, 84-79 overtime loss, coach Rick Pitino walked off the RCA Dome court not in anger, but in pride.
"I have to tell you, in past years, coming off the Marquette loss or the Carolina loss, I've been disappointed," he said. "But I'm not even a bit disappointed. I am so proud of our guys, the way they battled this whole night and the whole season.
"We don't have a first-place trophy, but I'm just as proud of this team as I was last year's team, maybe even more."
In the locker room, Pitino shared that sentiment with his somber players, trying to soothe the sting of their toughest defeat in a 35-5 season.
"I told them, you're not champions; you got the second-place trophy," he said. "But you're champions inside. I said if you're disappointed, you don't understand about life."
Kentucky's vaunted press threw up only mild resistance for Arizona. It forced 18 turnovers, but for the most part was ineffectual against the quicksilver Arizona guards.
"They did a great job handling our press," said Scott Padgett, who led Kentucky with 17 points. "Before the game they said they could do it. Obviously, they really worked on handling our pressure, and they went out and kept their cool, and they didn't rush things."
Physically drained in its semifinal win over Minnesota on Saturday, Kentucky showed its fatigue early and often. Pitino said he preferred not to use the press going it, but ultimately had to in order to get the tempo to his liking.
The result, though, was a total of 29 Kentucky fouls, four disqualifications, and a total of 41 Arizona free throws. Arizona made 34 of them.
"We didn't press for the first 5 1/2 minutes, [and] I wouldn't have pressed at all if we could get the pace a little higher," Pitino said. "I did not want to press much tonight, not only because of their confidence in it, but I felt that pressing tonight wasn't the way necessarily to go."
Kentucky lost Jared Prickett and Wayne Turner to fouls in the final two minutes of regulation, then lost Ron Mercer and Padgett in overtime.
Mercer, who experienced leg cramps against Minnesota, ran into more trouble with Arizona double-teams. In his final college game before leaving for the NBA, he had 13 points, 10 in the second half.
"They went out and played outstanding defense," Mercer said. "Every time I curled around [a teammate's screen], they had somebody waiting for me. They made it tough for me to score."
Kentucky shot 41.7 percent, and launched 30 three-pointers, hitting 10. It took a pair of three-pointers, by Mercer and Anthony Epps, in the final 51 seconds to force overtime. Epps hit the three that tied the game at 74, and then he accounted for the only two field goals by either team in overtime.
But it was too little, too late against a team that defeated an unprecedented three No. 1 seeds in the tournament.
In the end, Pitino had praise for his team and Arizona's winning coach, Lute Olson.
"I really want to congratulate Lute Olson," he said. "I know what it is to win a championship. It's a lifelong dream. And as a man who worked so hard, he has earned this championship, and I'm really happy for him.
"I've never had this much fun coaching in my life. I'd like to win it every year I coach, and I hope [Temple coach] John Chaney or [Kansas coach] Roy Williams win it in another year, because I'd like to see the peers that I have so much respect for, happy, and deserve that.
"I want to thank our players. It was a terrific ride."
Pub Date: 4/01/97