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Kentucky will come out on top

Published Oct. 1, 2005

Rick Pitino got Providence to the Final Four in 1987 and won the national championship with Kentucky in 1996, but we're now witnessing the Boy Baron's best work.

Wildcats are semidepleted. Down to eight bodies Pitino nonetheless refuses, with a rare gushing of coaching honor, to activate semihealed hero Derek Anderson.

Even so, his Big Blue kings smothered St. Joseph's and Utah in the NCAA West Regional and go scorching into Indianapolis for next weekend's heavyweight title defense.

It'll be Kentucky against Minnesota in one national semifinal. Other pairing is North Carolina-Arizona. Saturday's winners go for the ultimate college basketball glory a week from tonight.

Until somebody proves there's a better team than Kentucky and a better coach than Pitino, my pick for Indy is a repeat. Wildcats figured to be cooked when the gifted Anderson was injured, but Pitino has his eight survivors in imposing gear.

North Carolina is also on a hot roll. Louisville was stubborn but considerably outgunned by the Tar Heels in Sunday's wrap-up in the East Regional. Minnesota keeps squashing its critics. Big Ten enemies couldn't handle the Gophers. Neither could an over-respected UCLA team in the Midwest.

With three set for Indy, the final among the Four came late Sunday from Birmingham, where top-ranked Kansas had been eradicated Friday night. Arizona shocked the Jayhawks and then, in Sunday's assignment, tried to not get stunned by 10th-seeded Providence.

It wasn't pretty. Too much playground mentality. Too much mouthing. Four technical fouls, three on out-of-control Friars. Arizona led by 12 points in the second half. Providence still trailed 85-78 with 75 seconds remaining. It got exciting. Ugly but exciting.

Messing up NCAA Tournament games, that is Arizona's nasty national notoriety. Wildcats deserved an Alabama flop-out, kissing off this Final Four, but Providence blew its cool and also blew a last-second chance.

Friars rallied; Wildcats began to gag. Score was stunningly squared 85-85. But in the end, with Arizona's infamous glass chin available for shattering, the long shot from Rhode Island entrusted its biggest long shot of the season to the most inaccurate of hands.

We'll get to that.

Lute Olson wasn't getting much achieved as Arizona coach. When the kids from Tucson needed to grind time off the clock, protecting a five-point lead, Mike Dickerson threw up a quick and errant jump shot.

A moment later, Miles Simon, who scored 30 points against the Friars, was attempting an ill-advised 10-footer and having it smashed into his face by Ruben Garces.

So it came to that 85-all moment. Friars took the ball inbounds beneath their basket. Clock showed 3.4 seconds. Anything positive by Providence and Arizona is dead. A basket. A free throw.

Providence coach Pete Gillen ordered God Shammgod to make the pass in. Why? Shammgod had been the penetrating catalyst in the Friars' comeback. He had 23 points. Wildcats couldn't block his path. What if P.C. had put the ball into God's hands, on the floor instead of out of bounds, allowing the sophomore from Harlem to go shouldering inside, trying to draw a foul?

Gillen's plan was for Shammgod to flick an inbounds pass to Derrick Brown. But the Wildcats reacted on defense. Brown was double-covered. Shammgod could find nobody open but 5-foot-7 Corey Wright.

Open for a reason.

As the ticker hit :01.1, the little fellow threw up a three-point attempt. It was ghastly. Off-line the moment it was launched. Almost missed the rim entirely. It figured. Wright was the wrong choice. For the season, the squatty New Yorker was 12-for-59 on three-point tries, a fragment above 20 percent.

Arizona kept breathing. Won it in overtime. "We lost our heads," said Brown, who drew one of three P.C. technical fouls. "That cost us the game." That and allowing the undersized, can't-shoot-straight Wright, a defensive specialist and playmaker, to take the shot that could've sent the Friars to Indianapolis.

Final 4 and 0

Lute Olson is 4-0 as coach in games played with a Final Four bid on the line. Three came at Arizona, the other at Iowa (1980):

1980: Georgetown, 81-80, East final

1988: North Carolina, 70-52, West final

1994: Missouri, 92-72, West final

1997: Providence, 96-92, Southeast final

More on Wildcats

Arizona and North Carolina met in the season opener. The Wildcats beat the Tar Heels 83-72 in the Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic in Springfield, Mass., on Nov. 22.

Olson improved to 339-110 with the Wildcats, 531-202 overall. He's in his 18th trip to the NCAA and is 26-18 in tournament games.

While UCLA leads all schools with 11 NCAA men's basketball titles, this is only the third time in the '90s that a Pac-10 team has made the Final Four (Arizona '94, '97; UCLA '95).