SAN ANTONIO — At the far end of the court, Rick Majerus had his mouth agape, his big body sagging, what little hair he has left dripping sweat behind his ears. As a coach who just turned 50, is a bachelor, and lives in a hotel because “I don’t want to have to make my bed,” he might have believed that believing was enough, that making your life all about doing the impossible might just make it …possible. And until the waning minutes of Monday night, who would have argued? He had brought a no-star team to the lip of an NCAA championship, knocking off, along the way, last year’s king, Arizona, and perennial royalty North Carolina. And now, here were his Utah Utes, against the last dragon, maybe the most storied basketball program in America, the Kentucky Wildcats. And the Utes had, at some point or another in this raucous evening, outrebounded them, outshot them, out-hustled them, out-defensed them.
The only thing they couldn’t do was outlast them.
Comeback ‘Cats. Kentucky played this championship like a boxer who knows that his best friend is the length of the fight. Despite a 10-point halftime deficit, the ‘Cats kept chipping away at the lead, squeezing Utah down the stretch, blocking shots, poking the ball away, until slowly, slowly, the Utah magic drizzled and fizzled. Fatigue began to drag on the Utes like a wet suit. Michael Doleac, their thick senior center who had been masterful in the first half, was lumbering upcourt and clanking shots. Hanno Mottola, the Finnish sensation, lost his concentration and threw a three-pointer into the side of the backboard. Andre Miller, the Utes’ whirling point guard, tried to slalom his way inside, but only put enough on the ball to get it to the rim, not in.
The Utes went nearly six minutes without a basket, then another six minutes without a basket. Finally, with just a few ticks remaining, Kentucky’s Wayne Turner took a lob from Jeff Sheppard and slammed the ball through the hoop, giving Kentucky its biggest lead, 10 points. And as Turner waved his arms in glee, Majerus and his team had the look of men who push a boulder to the top of the mountain and let go. What happens?
It rolls back on you.
“Viva La Alamo!” screamed Tubby Smith, the first-year coach for Kentucky who gave the Wildcats their second championship in three years with a 78-69 victory, and will forever love this town. “I want to thank God, my family, my wife, these players, all the players…. “
Back to Tubby in a moment.
There were no bad stories in this wonderful Final Four, and certainly Smith’s becoming only the seventh coach to win it all in his first season at a school
(the last was Steve Fisher at Michigan) is a book waiting to be written. But Majerus and Utah were an emotional favorite, if only because it’s not every year — or even every decade — that you get a coach who looks like a deli owner, eats like a permanent customer, and manages to laugh despite the pressure cooker that is college basketball.
Unlike Kentucky — which captured its seventh NCAA crown — the last time Utah won a national title, it was as a substitute, filling in for an Arkansas squad that couldn’t make it. The year was 1944, and those Utes held a team vote to see whether they wanted to bother to ride a train to New York City.
Majerus and his Utes needed no vote to attend this affair. They had earned the final with defense, with boxing out, with rebounding — all those non-glamorous things. As Majerus said last week, “Do you know how hard it is for ‘SportsCenter’ to find a highlight of us?”
Maybe that’s a good thing.
And it almost became a legendary one.
Now, back to Tubby….
“I want to thank my athletic director, God, Rick Pitino, all these players….
Pressure was on Smith
Well, can you blame Smith? Here is a guy who took over a team that is religion in the state of Kentucky. Such is the pressure cooker there, that when Smith was considering the job, a female Kentucky columnist urged him not to accept because “Kentucky is not ready for a black basketball coach…. I fear for your safety and the safety of your family…. The first game you lose, it won’t be, ‘You’re a bad coach,’ it’ll be, ‘You’re a bad black coach.’ “
But Smith, who earned his nickname Tubby as one of 17 children on a poor Maryland farm who didn’t like to get out of the galvanized steel bathtub when his time was up, was not the type to be intimidated. And you could argue that his victory Monday night was an even more superb piece of coaching than Pitino’s win in 1996, because this group did not have that NBA-bound talent.
“Anytime you take over from a coach as talented as Rick Pitino, there’s pressure,” Smith admitted an hour after the title was his. “But I try not to look at this as a personal thing. It really hasn’t hit me yet. I had to ask our athletic director C.M. (Newton), ‘Did we really just win the national championship?’ I don’t know how it’s supposed to feel!”
It’s supposed to feel good, and no doubt it does. Not that Kentucky fans were thrilled with the early returns Monday. The first half of this game was like watching basketball from a bygone era. You half-expected your TV set to go black and white and flash a commercial for Brylcreem. This was 1998? There wasn’t a dunk for the first five minutes, Kentucky made no three-pointers the entire half, balls were bounced inside to big men, many of the shots were banked gently off glass, nobody complained to the refs, and Utah kept throwing these long lob passes — remember when they called them “baseball passes”? — for breakaway lay-ups.
Oh, yes, and the Utes rebounded. They rebounded offensively and they rebounded defensively, using the classic box-out position and riding the thick frame of Doleac, who is — get this for an anachronism — a fifth-year senior.
I didn’t know they made those anymore.
Anyhow, the Utes ran off at halftime with a 10-point lead. And lesser teams might have been scared witless. But Kentucky never panicked. The Wildcats came back Monday night the way they came back last weekend against Duke, overcoming a 17-point deficit, and Saturday in the semifinals against Stanford, overcoming a 10-point deficit.
“We’re always confident we can come back on people,” said Scott Padgett, who had 17 points and five rebounds. “We use our defense to wear you down.”
In the final 11 1/2 minutes Monday night, Utah scored three baskets, the last one a meaningless three-pointer. Meanwhile, Kentucky scored just enough to break Utah’s will. The clincher came on Utah’s last gasp, clinging to a four-point lead. The Wildcats’ Cameron Mills, who hit several killer three-pointers against Duke, escaped the Utah defense and fired a 21-footer that ripped the net.
“That,” Utah’s Drew Hansen would later sigh, “was the biggest defensive mistake of my life. That’s what Mills does. Makes three-pointers. And I let him.”
The squeeze was on, and moments later, Utah succumbed.
“We were beaten by a better team,” Majerus said. “Our hats are off to them. They’re number one, but …”
He looked over at several of his players, who were trying their best to keep their heads high.
“…but these guys are No. 1A.”
Fitting close to season
What a nice final sentiment, a fitting close to a balanced college basketball season and a March Madness that was like a box of Belgian chocolates, with something wonderful and different inside each one. There was the nuttiness of West Virginia’s last-second, bank-shot victory, the syrupy sweetness of Valparaiso and its father-son story, the hardened almond of Jim Harrick’s return to glory with Rhode Island, the bittersweet taste of Duke just missing its chance to return to glory with Mike Krzyzewski.
The Big Dance did not disappoint. And Monday night was a nail-biter until the last minute. Admit it. You were wrapped up into it, and you didn’t even know half the players.
Well, what we may have had with this goose-bumpy tournament is the return of team basketball — by necessity. Remember how we predicted the death of college hoops with the rise in departing underclassmen? News of death may have premature. What died is the sport that cultivated one star player and tried to ride him to a title — the way Purdue tried with Glenn Robinson, the way LSU tried with Shaquille O’Neal. Those players won’t stick around long enough to get it done anymore.
What may replace them is what we saw here with Kentucky and Utah. Teams that rely on everyone. Teams that swarm on defense like bees. Teams that feature point guards — real ones, not Michael Jordan impersonators — teams that pass, that use the time on the clock, that press from one end of the floor to another, that don’t spend time preening or dancing or arguing with referees, because they’re too busy concentrating.
Majerus and his wonderful story lost with the same class he had shown in winning.
And as the interview area began to clear, Tubby Smith, the new king of Kentucky, stayed in his seat, watching the exits, happy to just be sitting still.
“It’s amazing,” he mused, “what you can achieve when you don’t care who gets the credit.”
Wow. A great game — and we can actually learn something, too?
I guess that’s why they call it college.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.