EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The throne of college basketball came home Monday night — to Kentucky, where grandfathers still weep happily at Wildcats victories, and children still dribble in rainwater up to their ankles, shooting at lonely rims hung on county telephone poles.
Go wild, ‘Cats. This beehive of a Kentucky team swarmed the national title a little shy of midnight Monday, April Fools’ Day, in a New Jersey arena that was leaking rain from the roof all game long. Perhaps it was some divine attempt to wash away Kentucky’s recent frustrations. No need. With its pressing defense, deep bench, and a storm of three-pointers tossed by senior Tony Delk and a fabulous freshman named Ron Mercer — 44 points between them — Kentucky had April showers whenever it wanted.
Go wild, ‘Cats.
"The whole state owns this team," said an effusive Rick Pitino, the Kentucky coach, after his team withstood a late charge by Syracuse to win, 76-67, and return the crown to the blue grass school for the first time in nearly two decades. "Syracuse gave us everything we could handle, but we held on. I am so happy for Kentucky."
Yes, this was the final lunge of a team that was supposed to lead the college season from wire to wire. And no, it wasn’t the world’s prettiest game. In fact, the symbol of this championship could be the ball bouncing off one team’s hands into the other’s. But when Delk rolled in the final basket with two seconds remaining, his 24th point of the night, the long wait was finally over. The players leapt off the bench and ran onto the floor. And if the result seems anticlimactic to you, well, take a drive to the Kentucky border and get out of the car. That breeze you feel is the collective sigh of relief from the state’s population, and that music you hear is a coronation party that would make Prince Charles envious.
College basketball is religion in Kentucky, and singing the Wildcats’ praises is merely preaching the gospel.
Go wild, ‘Cats. He finished what he started
"What was the key to winning tonight?" someone asked Pitino, after the first championship of his life.
"Well, this may sound funny, but the most important factor was losing last year to North Carolina in the tournament. We used that as motivation all season long, and I talked about it at least 500 times. I remember last year, all my family members who live around New York were so upset. So I said, ‘What are you worried about? Wouldn’t it be better to win next year in New Jersey?’
"Did I believe it? Not at all. But I said it to make them feel better."
And now he does as well.
What a release for Pitino. There is no describing what this job is like. Over the years, he has had to call numerous news conferences just to assure Kentucky fans that he wasn’t leaving. A local radio station once stole some dirt from the construction site of his new house, and sold it over the air to the highest bidder. People sleep in tents for weeks just to get tickets to his first practice. None of this, by the way, is considered unusual in Kentucky. Remember the old joke about a UK fan whose fondest wish is to see the Wildcats play, but he dies before he gets the chance. His son goes to the game as a tribute to his father.
"Did the rest of your family want to come?" he is asked.
"Oh, yes," he says, "but they’re at the funeral."
How basketball got so crazy in Kentucky is no big secret. In the late ’40s, the dirt-poor state with a hunger for pride suddenly found itself under the spell of Adolph Rupp, the legendary coach, who led the Wildcats to a national championship in 1948, another in 1949, another in 1951, and another in 1958. The state became synonymous with college hoops, and every daydream seemed to contain a swishing sound.
But coming into Monday night, it had been 18 years since the last song played at a Final Four was "My Old Kentucky Home." The program had fallen into the mud, thanks to a recruiting scandal, and when Pitino rode into town seven years ago, the Wildcats’ faithful were looking for a miracle.
They found it in the tireless, charming, New-Yawk-accented coach, who opened his own Italian restaurant just to have food he could stomach in Lexington. No matter. He rebuilt. He recharged. He got the program to .500 in his first year, and it was never average again. Critics kept saying he would jump ship — as he had done his whole career, from Boston University to Providence, to the New York Knicks — but the Kentucky obsession became his obsession, and the truth was, he needed to finish something he started. He could not leave the Wildcats without a visit to the promised land.
Monday night he not only visited, he took home the big souvenir.
"Don’t print this, but I haven’t had a beer in a month," Pitino said, looking both ways, "and I’m gonna go out now and have a cold one."
Go wild, ‘Cat.
Flawless? Not by longshot
As for the game itself, well, it will hardly be remembered as flawless. In fact, there were more turnovers (39) than free throws or assists. Players were holding their stomachs as they came up and down the floor, panting heavily, mostly because as soon as you got to one end, someone turned it over and you had to race the other way again. It was like a practice drill, see how hard you can run. This was a championship?
Well, it was when it came to shooting. John Wallace of Syracuse sank 11 of 19 baskets, and his teammate, Todd Burgan, hit three 3-pointers. Delk was magnificent in the first half, sinking six three-pointers — no that is not a typo — and Mercer, the freshman, served notice that the ball had better come his way more often next season. He had the best shooting night of anybody on the floor, scored 20 points, and seemed completely unfazed.
"One of the main reasons I came to this school is because it had a chance at a national championship," said Mercer, who was perhaps the nation’s most recruited high school player during his senior year. "I figured I would learn."
"Yeah," Pitino interrupted. "But he also kept telling me, you don’t have to wait for the future, Coach. I’m here now."
When the buzzer sounded, Mercer, the freshman, and Delk, the senior, fell into a pile with the rest of them. They will eventually be remembered as one of the better college basketball teams in history, with a 34-2 record and a string of impressive tournament victories. Down, in order, went San Jose State, Virginia Tech, Utah, Wake Forest, UMass and now Syracuse.
And not once was a game closer than seven points.
As for the Orangemen? They gave a remarkable effort. For a team that not only wasn’t expected to be here, but at one point in this game turned the ball over six straight times — well, here they were, in the second half, closing the gap to two points, with big senior John Wallace, in the last game of his career, making all kind of shots, and Burgan, out of Detroit Pershing, flinging in three-pointers, and Otis Hill, the former high school football player, banging away for one rebound after another. In the end, they just made too many mistakes, had too many fouls, and got no points from their bench. And that’s no way to try to topple the seemingly endless stream of Kentucky players.
"I told them in the locker room forget the word ‘lose,’ you didn’t lose anything tonight," coach Jim Boeheim said. "Kentucky won a tough game, that’s all."
That it did. Go wild, ‘Cats. What this really means is not that Pitino can rest, or that his three-point-loving, beehive- pressing style is the wave of the future, or even that the college hoop pundits were, for once, actually correct in their predictions.
What this really means is that tomorrow, and the next day, and for years to come, little boys on sandlot Kentucky courts will lift the basketballs to their chins and hear the whispered words, "Delk for threeee . . ." and they will launch those balls with all their hearts, aiming for glory.