All season Kentucky prided itself on balance, on combating a starless sky with non-pareil collective effort. But with Stanford charging hard, with points at a premium and the season at stake, the Wildcats handed their fate to senior guard Jeff Sheppard.
Like Antoine Walker, Tony Delk and Ron Mercer before him, Sheppard delivered the biggest baskets at the pressure points of this stirring afternoon affair.
He scored a game-high 27 points - including three postcard-perfect 3-pointers in the closing minutes - and catapulted Kentucky to a fabulous 86-85 overtime victory over Stanford before 40,509 Saturday in the Alamodome.
“I had great screens set for me, and it’s kind of easy when you’re open,” Sheppard said. “It makes it a lot easier to knock those shots down… .
“There’s nothing like being able to lean on your teammates’ shoulder when you are not having a good day. That’s what it’s all about, and we’ve been there for each other all season. It’s reflected in how we play.”
Sheppard’s heroics hoisted the Wildcats into their third consecutive NCAA championship game, where they’ll face surprising Utah on Monday night.
The journey was rougher than expected, as Stanford, an 8.5-point underdog, refused to wilt in the face of Sheppard’s sharpshooting and Kentucky’s relentless pressure.
“We’ve already set a goal: come back (to the Final Four) next year,” said Stanford freshman Jarron Collins.
With its top 10 players returning - including point guard Arthur Lee, who led the Cardinal with 26 points and five assists - Stanford will be a favorite to do just that.
It was a wondrous game, best of the tournament, with minimal mistakes and the momentum swaying like a cardinal and blue pendulum. There were nine lead changes, 19 different one-point leads and a plethora of clutch shots. The game was so exciting, so well played, that the Final Four coaches’ section gave the teams a standing ovation.
“I’m sure if I was sitting in the stands … I would have applauded, also,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. “It was a great game.”
Lee scored Stanford’s first eight points, and the Cardinal jumped to a 15-5 lead before Kentucky gained its rhythm. The Wildcats surged again and again but didn’t take their first lead until 10 minutes remained. From there, the teams switched roles, with Kentucky constantly on the verge of a breakout and Stanford counterpunching.
Sheppard’s back-to-back 3s - the second coming with 1:17 remaining - gave Kentucky a 72-68 lead that appeared to doom the Cardinal. But Mark Madsen’s tip-in and Lee’s 3-pointer tied it at 73-73 with 28 seconds left.
Each team had a chance to win, but Wayne Turner missed a difficult layup and Kris Weems’ 30-footer at the buzzer was a few feet short.
“We were excited to continue playing,” Sheppard said. “It’s a Final Four. Why not an overtime game?”
After Turner made a pair of free throws and Sheppard nailed a free throw to send Kentucky up 86-82 with 15.4 seconds left, Stanford forward Peter Sauer came right back to knock down a 23-foot 3-pointer to close the gap to one again, setting the stage for a dramatic ending.
Stanford’s Collins tied up Scott Padgett after the in-bounds pass with 6 seconds left, but the possession arrow went to Kentucky. Forward Allen Edwards threw a deep pass that Turner chased down. Turner was fouled immediately by Lee with 2.5 seconds left. He missed both free throws, though, and Sauer, who grabbed the rebound, let go with a 55-foot prayer that fell short as the buzzer sounded.
Kentucky 86, Stanford 85 (OT)
Stanford (30-5) - Sauer 4-5 0-0 8, Madsen 4-5 1-1 11, Young 5-11 0-0 10, Weems 6-23 2-3 17, Lee 6-12 9-9 26, Mosely 0-3 2-2 2, Mendez 1-4 0-0 3, Jar. Collins 1-3 5-7 7, McDonald 0-1 0-0 0, Van Elswyk 0-1 1-2 1, Seaton 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-68 20-24 85.
Kentucky (34-4) - Edwards 4-10 2-3 11, Padgett 2-8 6-6 10, Mohammed 7-14 4-6 18, Turner 2-8 4-9 8, Sheppard 9-15 5-7 27, Evans 2-7 0-0 4, Magloire 2-3 2-2 6, Smith 0-1 0-0 0, Mills 1-1 0-0 2, Bradley 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-67 23-33 86.
Halftime-Stanford 37, Kentucky 32. End of Regulation-Stanford 73, Kentucky 73. 3-Point goals-Stanford 11-28 (Lee 5-8, Weems 3-11, Sauer 2-3, Mendez 1-4, Mosely 0-2), Kentucky 5-15 (Sheppard 4-8, Edwards 1-2, Evans 0-2, Padgett 0-3). Fouled out-Madsen, Young. Rebounds-Stanford 45 (Madsen 16), Kentucky 40 (Padgett, Evans, Sheppard 6). Assists-Stanford 13 (Lee 5), Kentucky 16 (Turner, Sheppard 4). Total fouls-Stanford 23, Kentucky 22. A-40,509.