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Comeback Cats
Alexander Wolff
April 06, 1998
Digging itself out of one last hole, Kentucky brought a resounding end to the first year of the Tubby Smith era with its seventh NCAA title
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April 06, 1998

Comeback Cats

Digging itself out of one last hole, Kentucky brought a resounding end to the first year of the Tubby Smith era with its seventh NCAA title

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His work done, Kentucky coach Tubby Smith stood on the floor of San Antonio's Alamodome on Monday night, awaiting a word with CBS. Kentucky guard Cameron Mills stood beside him with his head on Smith's shoulder, a shoulder Mills wouldn't have traded for a down-filled pillow.

Then Smith turned and kissed the top of Mills's head. In that moment a Kentucky team for the ages, a team that won the school's seventh NCAA title and expunged its greatest shame, did its best to seduce every basketball fan who has always found the Big Blue a little too big and a little too smug. Every fan, that is, not already smitten by the comebacks the Wildcats had staged during an NCAA tournament as irresistible as its champion.

These Wildcats had strength, but they also had vulnerability. Oh, did they have vulnerability. To get to the Final Four they spotted Duke a 17-point lead and won. They went down 10 in the second half to Stanford last Saturday before forcing overtime and prevailing 86-85 to reach the championship game. And at intermission on Monday—down 10, outrebounded by 18, unable to hit a single three-pointer—they looked as if they had dug themselves one hole too many, but they rallied to wipe out the largest halftime deficit that any team had overcome to win a title game and came away with a 78-69 defeat of Utah.

The scoreboard had Utah leading for what seemed like an eternity before senior Jeff Sheppard, the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, stepped into a passing lane with slightly more than seven minutes to play, intercepted a pass from Utah's Hanno Möttölä and then galloped downcourt for the dunk that would give Kentucky its first lead since early in the first half. The Wildcats would lose that lead, of course; nothing came easy for them. But they limited the Utes to eight baskets over the final 20 minutes and so pressured the Utes' point guard, Andre Miller, that down the stretch he looked, in Utah coach Rick Majerus's words, "like a punch-drunk fighter." Oh, the product of a misspent Ute.

"In '96 everyone knew we were going to win it," Sheppard said after Kentucky clinched its second title in three years. "We had so much talent, it was more of a relief when we won it. This year it's pure joy.

"I think next year the guys need to work on not getting down by so much," he added.

Sheppard did all he could to bring the Wildcats back. He buried two three-pointers in the last three minutes of regulation against Stanford, then in overtime he scored on a drive and curled snugly off a screen for another three before finally adding the last of his career-best 27 points, the free throw that gave the Wildcats their decisive margin. "It wasn't like he was making uncontested shots," Stanford forward Peter Sauer said of Sheppard. "We had guys flying at him all night." Added Cardinal assistant coach Doug Oliver, "He squares himself in the air, almost."

It was only by chance that Sheppard ever came to Kentucky's attention. After his junior year at Atlanta's McIntosh High, he wasn't good enough to make the state all-star team, which was booked to play in the Boston Shootout, one of the summertime meat markets for high school talent. Only after one player on the team and the first alternate were unable to play did Sheppard get the chance to join up. In Boston he won the slam-dunk contest, imprinting himself on the consciousness of Rick Pitino, Kentucky's coach at the time. Sheppard went on to be named Georgia's Mr. Basketball the following season and fulfill his longstanding dream to play at Kentucky.

In Lexington, Sheppard faced challenges of a different order. As a junior he contributed to the Wildcats' 1996 title, averaging 5.5 points a game. But a year ago, with future first-round NBA picks Ron Mercer and Derek Anderson playing ahead of him, Sheppard acted on Pitino's suggestion that he redshirt for what would have been his senior season. Only after his teammates interceded with Pitino was he permitted to travel with the squad, and then he had to watch as Anderson went down with a knee injury in January and the Wildcats lost in overtime of the championship game.

Even this season, under the lighter lash of Smith, Sheppard was still so tightly coiled a personality that his fiancée, former Kentucky women's basketball player Stacey Reed, had to straighten him out. "He had been struggling, and all these people were putting pressure on him, asking if he was going to be drafted or not," says Reed. "Before the last home game I told him the NBA stuff doesn't matter to me, but that he wouldn't be happy if he wasn't playing the way he's capable of playing. Then against Auburn he really broke out. Ever since then he's been a totally different player."

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