DL EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.
Pick a spot in the Rupp Arena rafters.
Already did, huh?
No one should be surprised.
The Kentucky Wildcats, expected to win the NCAA championship all season, used Tony Delk's
three-point shooting and tenacious half-court defense to beat resilient Syracuse 76-67 Monday for their first title in 18 years.
The Wild-cats, donning championship caps and T-shirts, cavorted at midcourt at the Continental Airlines Arena. Coach Rick Pitino, ribbed as the author of two books but no titles, hugged his wife, Joanne. Even former star Jack Givens, the hero of the team's last championship, joined in the on-court celebration.
"We're like the (Green Bay) Packers," Pitino said. "The university is what we're all about, but this is a team that belongs to the entire state of Kentucky."
With its sixth title, UK (34-2) moves into sole possession of second place all-time, ahead of Indiana. Only UCLA, with 11 championships, has more.
Syracuse (29-9), the fourth-best team in the Big East during the regular season, lost for the second time in the finals. Indiana beat the Orangemen 74-73 in 1987 on a last-second jumper by Keith Smart.
This one was not that close, but it was a surprisingly hard-fought battle for the Wildcats, who were favored by 14 points, the largest spread since UCLA was a 16-point favorite against Florida State in 1972.
"We never played up the underdog role with this team," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "They think they should win. They've gone into each game thinking they should win, and they still think they should have won tonight."
Delk, who was named the Final Four MVP after he scored a team-high 24 points and tied a championship game record with seven three-pointers, and freshman Ron Mercer, who scored a career-high 20, provided the offense at all the crucial times.
"We were very patient out there; we tried not to take bad shots," Delk said. "I thought everyone did a great job passing and when we do that, that's when we're a great team."
Delk coyly said his final three-pointer was not a good shot. Syracuse junior forward Todd Burgan rushed toward him, fouling him. Both players crashed in a heap in front of a giddy UK bench. Delk's free throw capped an 11-0 run that gave UK a 59-46 lead with 11:12 left.
"I thought it was big," Delk said.
But Burgan and senior forward John Wallace each scored five points in a 12-2 run, highlighted by Wallace's driving two-handed dunk while being fouled, to climb back within four, 62-58.
A layin and two free throws by Wallace, who finished with a game-high 29 points before fouling out, cut the UK lead to 64-62 with 4:46 left.
The Wildcats, who weathered numerous second-half comebacks by top-ranked Massachusetts in the semifinal, responded. Senior center Walter McCarty tapped in a missed three-pointer by Delk and junior forward Derek Anderson followed with a three-pointer to pad the lead.
"The UMass game really helped us down the stretch," Delk said.
UK set a championship game record with 12 three-pointers against the Orangemen's heretofore stingy 2-3 zone. That defense, rarely used as a base defense, had held the Orangemen's previous five opponents to just 38 percent shooting overall and 26 percent from three-point range. UK would shoot 38 percent overall, the lowest for a winner in a title game since 1963, but made 44 percent of its threes.
"They're a good shooting team," Boeheim said. "When you play zone, you know you're going to leave them open some of the time. But I don't think that was the ballgame."
Burgan, who finished with 19 points, hit a three-pointer to keep Syracuse within five, 72-67, with 2:01 left. After Syracuse forced a shot-clock violation, it looked to Wallace again. But center Mark Pope stepped in front of Wallace and knocked the pass away with 1:06 to go.
"We needed to make a play right there," Boeheim added. "Lazarus (Sims) thought he could get it to John. We had a chance right there, but that was the play."
Wallace was disqualified when he fouled Pope to prevent a fastbreak.
"We definitely could have won the game," he said, in part blaming some calls that he said could have gone either way and went against his team.
Pope hit two free throws to all but seal the win. Delk ended the scoring with a breakaway layup that started a celebration a long time in coming.
UK's the 1
1995-96 UK 76, Syracuse 67
1977-78 UK 94, Duke 88
1957-58 UK 84, Seattle 72
1950-51 UK 68, Kansas St. 58
1948-49 UK 46, Okla. A&M 36
1947-48 UK 58, Baylor 42
Key stats Syracuse Kentucky
FG% 50.0 38.4
FT% 69.2 61.5
REBs 38 40
ASTs 12 22
BLKs 2 1
Steals 6 11
TOs 24 15