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Exciting? Ncaa’s Been That

Tue., March 24, 1998

If you’re still among the non-believers after the regional finals in St. Louis and St. Petersburg on Sunday, you’ll never be converted.

How can anyone doubt this has been the most scintillating NCAA Tournament leading to a Final Four? Does the case still need to be argued?

If so, here goes, starting with the 3-pointers: D’Juan Baker’s from the left wing, which gave No. 2 seed Cincinnati a 65-62 victory over No. 15 seed Northern Arizona in the West Regional in Boise.

Marius Janulis’ from the top of the key, which enabled Syracuse to hold off Iona in the South 63-61.

Bryce Drew’s buzzer-beater from the right wing, the shot that enabled Valparaiso to stun Mississippi in the Midwest 70-69.

Jarrod West sinking the prettiest bank shot in the history of West Virginia, which let the Mountaineers jerk one away from Cincinnati 75-74.

Two days after Drew’s shot, the Crusaders rallied to upset Florida State in overtime 83-77.

But 2-1/2 hours later, on the same floor in Oklahoma City, the real shocker took place when No. 1 Kansas fell to No. 8 Rhode Island 80-75, the fourth year in a row the Jayhawks have been toppled as a region No. 1 seed.

And all of those things happened in just the first two rounds.

Thursday night in an East semifinal in Greensboro, N.C., Richard Hamilton’s fall-away 13-footer at the buzzer allowed No. 2 Connecticut to edge No. 11 Washington 75-74.

Saturday at Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim, the Utah Utes turned in the team performance of the season to overwhelm the defending national champion Arizona Wildcats 76-51.

Then I defy anyone to recall two regional championship games played on the same day in which the winners relied on such stunning rallies.

Sunday, Rhode Island dominated Stanford in the second half in St. Louis, seemingly doing everything it had to, offensively and defensively, to beat the Cardinal.

But brilliant clock management by coach Mike Montgomery in the final couple of minutes, as well as a remarkably clutch performance by junior guard Arthur Lee, gave Stanford a 79-77 Midwest Regional victory and the school’s first Final Four berth in 56 years.

In St. Petersburg, the Kentucky-Duke matchup was that rarity of rarities - a much-hyped sports event that surpassed expectations.

The Wildcats were down by 18 in the first half, and 17 with 9 minutes to go, before using Scott Padgett’s 3-pointer for an 86-84 victory and the South Regional title.

OK, so what can happen in the Utah-North Carolina and Kentucky-Stanford games Saturday that can top what we have seen in the first two weeks of the tournament?

Each regional final was a strong argument for those who argue a point guard can have more influence on a game than any other position.

From start to finish Saturday, Andre Miller’s performance (18 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists) for Utah was the most dominating by a point guard this season - including any by the nation’s best at the position, Mike Bibby of Arizona.

Stanford was able to beat Rhode Island behind the sheer willpower of Lee, a junior who would have loved to sign with UCLA out of North Hollywood, but wasn’t recruited by Rhode Island coach Jim Harrick when he was the Bruins’ head man.

Is that irony or what?

And Wayne Turner was the main reason Kentucky was able to overcome Duke down the stretch.

Ed Cota (eight points, nine assists and eight rebounds), North Carolina’s point guard, turned in a near-flawless performance against Connecticut in the East final.

Keep an eye on Cota-Miller and Lee-Turner battles Saturday.

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