March 20, 1998
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) - Not even fabled UCLA was a match for Kentucky, a No. 2 seed playing like it might be the No. 1 team in the country.
Jeff Sheppard's shooting and the inside muscle of Scott Padgett and Nazr Mohammed overpowered the depleted Bruins from the start, and the Wildcats romped 94-68 Friday night in a South regional mismatch of college basketball's two most storied teams.
Kentucky (32-4), only the No. 2 seed in the South despite winning its last 10 by an average margin of 21 points, will meet top-seeded Duke (32-3), an 80-67 winner over Syracuse, in Sunday's championship game.
It will be a long-awaited rematch of the Blue Devils' memorable 104-103 overtime victory in the 1992 East Regional final, a game often referred to as the best ever played in college basketball. Kentucky fans certainly haven't forgotten, jeering Duke throughout the Blue Devils' two subregional victories in Lexington last weekend.
Padgett scored 19 points, Sheppard hit for 16 more from the outside and Mohammed had 15 points and seven rebounds as the three badly outplayed UCLA's senior trio of J.R. Henderson, Toby Bailey and Kris Johnson, the only remaining players from the Bruins' 1995 title team.
It was a forgettable farewell for a UCLA trio that Kentucky coach Tubby Smith called the best in college basketball as they combined for a dismal 16-for-50 in their final college game.
Bailey, who had 26 points as a freshman in UCLA's title game victory over Arkansas, missed his first seven shots, was shut out in the first half and managed 16 points on 4-for-15 shooting.
Henderson, forced to move from power forward last month after Jelani McCoy quit the team, was 5-of-20 against Kentucky's deeper, bigger front line and had 10 points. Only Johnson, the son of former Bruins star Marques Johnson, played like himself, going 7-of-15 and scoring 18 points.
Kentucky has repeatedly opened up early double-digits spreads throughout its winning streak and the Wildcats did it again, taking advantage of UCLA's early tentativeness to surge to leads of 11-2, 20-5 and 26-11. UCLA didn't break into double digits until 8:40 remaining in the first half.
The Bruins (24-9) were hurt by the absence of star freshman point guard Baron Davis, who tore a knee ligament in Sunday's 85-82 upset of Michigan. UCLA repeatedly failed to handle the trademark fullcourt defense popularized by former coach Rick Pitino and modified by Smith.
Even when they got ball upcourt, the Bruins were clearly off their game, turning the ball over on walking violations three times in the first half. And they were twice beaten in the transition game because they stayed back to complain to the officials about supposedly missed calls.
Wayne Turner scored off his own steal to finish off a nine-point run that made it 11-2, igniting the estimated 8,000 Kentucky fans wedged into the sellout crowd of 40,589 - the largest ever for an NCAA regional - at still-unfinished Tropicana Field.
UCLA cut it to 11-5, but Sheppard's 3-pointer and Myron Anthony's 15-footer from the wing keyed a second nine-point burst in the opening seven minutes that made it 20-5, and the rout was on.
The No. 6 seed Bruins, trying for their second trip to the round of eight in as many seasons under coach Steve Lavin, made only one substantial run, closing to 28-21 on Johnson's 3-pointer from the top of the key.
But that only seemed to regain Kentucky's attention, and Heshimu Evans and Padgett each made two free throws before another Turner steal and layup boosted the lead back to a comfortable 15 points.
The Wildcats were so in control after that, their large fan contingent, many of whom drove 14 hours overnight to a soggy St. Petersburg, broke into cheers only sporadically during the second half.