COACH: TUBBY SMITH
DID YOU KNOW? UK WAS 11-3 IN GAMES DECIDED BY 10 POINTS OR FEWER AND 7-1 IN GAMES DECIDED BY THREE POINTS OR FEWER.
HIS WORK DONE, Kentucky coach Tubby Smith stood on the floor of San Antonio's Alamodome, 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 had won the school's seventh NCAA title, 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 in their semifinal before forcing overtime and prevailing 86-85 to reach the championship game. And at intermission on March 30—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 M�tt�l� and then galloped downcourt for the dunk that would give Kentucky its first lead since early in the first half. The Wildcats 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 later. "We had so much talent, it was more of a relief when we won it. This year it's pure joy." In the Bluegrass they'll come up with a nickname for this team, something to fall in line behind Rupp's Runts, the Fiddlin' Five, the Unforgettables and the Untouchables. But to fans in 49 other states Tubby Smith's first team might just be known as the Irresistibles.
From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, April 6, 1996