C-J vault: Elite Eight 1998

While we count down the last few hours to the University of Kentucky’s appearance in the 2010 Elite Eight against West Virginia in Syracuse, N.Y., I’m taking a look back at some Elite Eight eves past in The Courier-Journal archives with both UK and the University of Louisville.

UK-Duke: Greatest Game, too?

By MARK WOODS, March 22, 1998

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — We interrupt this Classic Sports Regional with a programming reminder.

There will be an actual Kentucky-Duke basketball game played at 5 p.m. today. It will be shown live on national TV. No videotape involved.

OK, maybe it will include the obligatory replays of what happened when these teams last met six years ago in Philadelphia. Of Sean Woods making the running shot in the lane with 2.1 seconds to give Kentucky a 103-102 lead. Of Duke’s Grant Hill inbounding the pass to Christian Laettner. Of Laettner . . .

Oops, there we go again. Flashback mode. And while it certainly was a great game, watching it now is kind of like seeing “Titanic.”

You know how it ends. The ship sinks. The shot goes in. Duke wins.

Nobody knows what will happen today when No. 2 seed Kentucky (32-4) plays No. 1 seed Duke (32-3) in the South Region final with a trip to San Antonio for the Final Four on the line.

“Who knows?” Duke forward Roshown McLeod said. “It could be a blowout, or it could be one of the greatest games ever.”

For now, that latter title seems to be attached to the most recent of 16 meetings between the two teams, a game that was as much a topic of conversation at yesterday’s news conferences as the one that will be played today.

“In some ways it takes away from this game and these teams,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, one of the few people who will be involved in both games. “Laettner and (Jamal) Mashburn shouldn’t be talked about right now. (Elton) Brand and (Nazr) Mohammed. (Heshimu) Evans and McLeod. It’s their day. I just want these kids to have their day.”

But in the end, which team will be holding the day, not to mention a plane ticket to Texas to face the Stanford-Rhode Island winner?

Will Kentucky be headed to the Final Four for the third consecutive season and the fourth time this decade? Or could Duke and its talented freshmen be starting a new run?

Nobody knows. And that is the beauty of this matchup.

One month ago you would have been hard-pressed to find too many people outside of Kentucky willing to pick the Wildcats in a meeting with Duke. For that matter, you might have been hard-pressed even in Kentucky.

Today, with UK on a 10-game winning streak, the believers are everywhere. And they aren’t just the folks running around St. Petersburg covered in blue.

UCLA coach Steve Lavin called Kentucky “the hottest team in the country” before and after his team lost to the Wildcats by 26 points in the regional semifinal Friday night.

Yesterday, Krzyzewski opened his news conference by seconding that opinion.

“They’ve had an amazing season, but what they’ve done lately is phenomenal,” he said. “They’ve kind of destroyed people. I’m very impressed with their defense and their . . .”

Before Krzyzewski could finish his sentence, the lights in one half of the interview room went off.

“Their lighting,” Krzyzewski said. “I didn’t know they could do that.”

The question is whether Kentucky can turn out the lights on Duke – a team whose only losses are to Michigan and North Carolina (twice).

It certainly no longer seems like a long shot. The team that produced only three double-digit margins of victory in its first 12 Southeastern Conference games keeps blowing people out. The Wildcats took an SEC Tournament that was supposed to be close and won three games by an average margin of 22 points. And in the NCAA Tournament, they have beaten South Carolina State by 15 points, Saint Louis by 27 and UCLA by 26.

Meanwhile, Duke has struggled in March. The Blue Devils lost by 15 points to North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament final. Then they got a scare in their NCAA Tournament second-round game. And not just because the fans at Rupp Arena said “boo.”

They were leading their second-round game against Oklahoma State by only three points with five minutes to play before holding on for a 79-73 victory.

After playing two games on UK’s home court, Blue Devils forward Shane Battier said, “It will be good to see Lexington from a plane.”

Well, guess what, Lexington came to Florida.

The Blue Devils were reminded of that when, after their 80-67 regional semifinal victory over Syracuse, they went into the stands at Tropicana Field to watch the second half of the doubleheader and found themselves surrounded by UK fans.

“I heard them say a lot of bad things about UCLA,” McLeod said.

Such as?

“Kill them,” he said. “I don’t think they meant it literally.”

No, the Wildcats fans are quite happy with a good, old-fashioned blowout. And for the last month, UK coach Tubby Smith and his players have been obliging.

Now the Wildcats find themselves one victory from their third consecutive trip to the Final Four.

One victory against Duke.

Never mind 1992. This is the game they wanted back in November when they traveled to Hawaii. Duke made it to the Maui Invitational final. Kentucky lost to Arizona in the semifinal, delaying the rematch.

“It’s kind of stupid, but we were really looking towards Duke in the championship game in Maui and didn’t look at (defending national champion) Arizona, which makes no sense when you think about it,” UK forward Scott Padgett said.

Since then they have been much more sensible. In a postseason filled with an unusual number of upsets, the Wildcats have avoided falling. In fact, they have gotten better by the game.

“They’ve been able to keep their focus,” Smith said of his players. “That’s the toughest thing this time of year. Watching everything on TV. Reading everything. Hearing peoples’ comments. . . . We’ve got guys who just love it.”

Smith pointed to Padgett, who has spent this month filling reporters’ notepads and as well as baskets.

“He eats this up,” Smith said. “He lives and breathes for this type of game. I think the good athletes do. . . . The fans, the pressure – that’s what they play for.”

Then this is their kind of game.

It’s Duke vs. Kentucky. It’s a regional final with six years of pent-up hype. It’s Classic Sports . . . live.

“(This) is about as good as you can get in college basketball,” Krzyzewski said. “We’ve been to some really big regional finals. . . . This matches any of the others.”

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