Kentucky Passes Final Exam, Brings Diploma Home

Article excerpt

Did you see the reaction by Kentucky coach Rick Pitino and the players?

We saw joy.

And we saw a lot of expressions of relief. After Kentucky fought off resilient Syracuse for a 76-67 victory on Monday night at the Meadowlands, Pitino looked as if he had just survived an ominous brush with mortal danger. Pitino needed to exhale. Finally, the crisis had passed. Pitino, trapped in his own state, just escaped the overwhelming burden put on his handsome head by demanding Kentucky fans. "I really hadn't had a moment to feel good, to feel elated, until now," Pitino said. "Really, I'm not relieved. We've got to go out and get a big man, so I have recruiting on my mind right now." Can you believe this? Thirty minutes after winning his first national championship, Pitino already was fretting about 1997. At Kentucky, there is no other choice. The Wildcats had to win a championship. They had a moral obligation to the Kentucky fans. They had to feed, and satisfy, an obsession. The Wildcats handled the pressure, preparing for Syracuse by locking themselves into rooms. "The players watched film for hour after hour," Pitino said. "They never left the hotel." After the sweet completion of a dream season, Kentucky sophomore forward Antoine Walker sat on the foul line and buried his head in his hands. Had he won or lost? Hard to tell. The pressure drained some of the fun. Kentucky had no desire to go back home as a runner-up to Syracuse. They might have been blocked at the Kentucky state line. "We are the Green Bay Packers," Pitino said. "This team belongs to the entire state of Kentucky." We presume that the Commonwealth will embrace these Wildcats. At least until next December, when the insatiable drive for another championship begins. Kentucky bailed itself out Monday night by forcing 24 turnovers. Senior Guard Tony Delk drilled in seven 3-pointers, needling Syracuse with 24 damaging points. Freshman forward Ron Mercer jumped into prime-time stardom with 20 points. …


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