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All right. All right. So the LSU coach said the site was a "disgrace to integrity" and insisted a more neutral court would be "Leningrad Stadium." So the Mississippi coach cried about the officiating; not complained, mind you, but cried—broke down and wept. So Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. isn't the fairest place on earth to play basketball if you don't have KENTUCKY emblazoned across your uniform. Picky, picky. If you were running that venerable football wonderland known as the SEC and you wanted to showcase your burgeoning, now-20th-century basketball programs, where would you locate a 10-team, four-day spectacular of a postseason conference tournament? On Golden Pond? At Auburn?
Besides, no one could maintain that the auslanders in the SEC got themselves totally whupped in Rupp after Alabama stunned the host Wildcats 48-46 in the tournament finale last Saturday night. Not only did the Crimson Tide fight the hardest, dig the deepest and play the best in winning the title and, with it, an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs, but 'Bama also showed everyone exactly how to sneak into a 'Cat's lair and overcome a 30-game home winning streak. Rolllll, Tide? No. Ebb, Tide.
Specifically, what quick, resourceful, voracious-rebounding Alabama did was to slow its 78-points-per-game attack to eliminate the crowd from the fray; horse the backboards in horse country, gobbling up everything it didn't outright reject (the Tide had a 26-18 rebound margin and five blocked shots); and ultimately give the ball to a wonderfully creative freshman guard named Ennis Whatley, so he could account for 27 points and take charge in the final seconds.
A week earlier 'Bama had pitifully rolled over in a season-ending 80-63 loss to lowly Vanderbilt and thus denied itself a share of the SEC regular-season championship with Kentucky and Tennessee. But in the tournament the Tide regained momentum with an impressive 85-74 romp over Georgia and then outsteadied the normally mistake-free Tennessee machine 56-50. After the Wildcats escaped the overexuberant clutches of Ole Miss 62-58—ole in this case referring to the olfactories through which the Rebels, having been whistled for 38 fouls, smelled a home-cooked rat—here came Alabama face-to-face with the veteran Kentucky team that had already beaten the Tide twice by a combined 27 points and were at home in Lexington. At Rupp. With those KENTUCKY WILDCATS block letters shining from the Kentucky floor and 21,981 Kentuckians (mostly) baying at the Kentucky moon. It's just like Brer Rabbit said, "I don't keer what you do wid me, Brer Fox...but don't fling me in dat brier-patch."
On Saturday the part of the briers was played by Kentucky's man-to-man defense, which Whatley destroyed at the beginning of the second half when he bobbed and weaved for seven straight points off the 'Cats' Dirk Minniefield. With Alabama in front 34-27, Kentucky reverted to a zone trap that kept Whatley from penetrating and denied the ball to the Tide's meaty inside pair of Bobby Lee Hurt and Eddie Phillips (who can also hurt).
After Kentucky battled back to lead 40-38 with 11:52 to play, the teams settled into a deliberate style. The championship game's 10th and 11th ties were forged when the Wildcats' hulking center, Mel Turpin, got two dunks off a rebound and a lob pass. The second of Turpin's baskets tied matters at 46-46 with 4:36 left. It was the last time Kentucky would get the ball down low.
Derrick Hord then became Alabama's prime victim. Hord, who had had a miserable time shooting—13 of 36 for the tournament—suddenly had a worse time holding on to the ball. At 3:30 Whatley stripped him. Then, after Hurt made a turnover and Kentucky got the ball back, Hord was tied up by the Tide's defensive bastion, Mike Davis, at :33. Under the alternate possession rule Kentucky still controlled, but nine seconds later Davis and Whatley both swarmed Hord, pressuring him into a traveling violation.
Now Alabama had the basketball and the tournament right where it wanted both all along: in the hands of Whatley, one-on-one, foul line extended. "Git the damn thang airborne quick," Tide Coach Wimp (yes, Wimp) Sanderson had drawled in the time-out huddle after Hord's travel, knowing that Kentucky, which had fouls to give, would attempt to nail Whatley before the shot. But Whatley, who already had 11 points and eight assists, buzzed around the 'Cat defenders so fast they never laid a glove on him.
Whatley's 12-foot banked jumper was released with seven seconds left but the ball glanced off the front rim and bounded up for grabs. Quick as you can say Enimo—a diminutive of Ennis, not Meeny-Miney-Mo's partner—Whatley was in the lane to catch the rebound and fire again. Was this attempt really that short, really an air ball? Uh-huh. But it was also a Phillips ball: Phillips, the 6'7" senior forward who had christened Whatley a "franchise" when Whatley was in grade school back in Birmingham and had waited for him in Tuscaloosa; Phillips, who had pounded the boards so viciously he injured his hand slapping the glass; Phillips, who so far had 14 baskets and 23 rebounds in the tournament. Now Phillips almost nonchalantly added one more of each as he skied, caught Whatley's shot in midair, came back down and flipped the ball into the hole.
It was an excruciating way for Kentucky to lose a championship, but by nature postseason conference tournaments are like that—harsh worlds unto themselves, noisy islands in the NCAA stream of unconsciousness. Floating out there in limbo between the end of the regular schedule and the beginning of the real tournament, they can define a team's season and crush its soul at the same time. But it's a green limbo. The ACC started this excitement/mess, and now so much money is to be pocketed from these meaningless exhibitions that all but five major conferences have copied the gimmick in one form or another.