They’ve been called Rupp’s Runts, the Fiddlin’ Five and the Fabulous Five.
Now they’re called the Comeback Cats - and NCAA champions, too.
Kentucky capped a truly maddening March with an unprecedented second-half rally, beating Utah 78-69 Monday night to win its second NCAA championship in three years. The Wildcats did it this time with a new coach and without stars in their lineup.
In its third straight comeback of the tournament, Kentucky overcame the largest halftime deficit - 10 points - in a championship game to win a seventh National title.
“We always played poised and know never to give up,” forward Heshimu Evans said. “We just come back. We’re a fighting team. We’re the Comeback Cats.”
With Tubby Smith working the sideline instead of Rick Pitino and with former stars Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer and Derek Anderson in the NBA, Kentucky moved one trophy closer to UCLA’s record total of 11.
It was the third straight year the Wildcats were in the championship game - they lost to Arizona in overtime last season - and the third straight year they ended Utah’s season in the NCAA tournament.
“We were so close last year and not too many teams get a chance to play in the championship game three years in a row,” said Scott Padgett, who missed the last national title while sitting out with academic problems. “But during the tournament I thought we were going to get it the whole time.”
Utah’s impressive run to what would have been the school’s second title ended because Kentucky did what No. 1 seeds Arizona and North Carolina couldn’t do against the Utes - shoot well and wear them down.
Kentucky fell behind in the first half and trailed 41-31 at halftime. The deficit was as many as 12 points in the opening minutes of the second half before Kentucky started hitting its shots.
“I just think it was fatigue,” Utah coach Rick Majerus said. “I thought Kentucky made some difficult shots and I applaud them because we had a hand in their face on those shots. We take our hats off to Kentucky because they whipped us and they are No. 1, but my guys are 1a.”
In the South Regional final, the Wildcats (35-4) battled back from a 17-point second-half deficit against Duke and in the national semifinal they fell behind by 10 before rallying to beat Stanford.
“There are three points to the comebacks and coach Smith has stressed them all season,” said Final Four MVP Jeff Sheppard, who sat out last season as a redshirt. “The first is positive attitude then hard work and then teamwork. That’s about as simple as it gets, but it got us a national championship. We didn’t have to be flashy, just fundamental and look where it got us.”
Comeback Cats is just the latest nickname for Kentucky. The 1948 championship team was called the Fabulous Five and the 1958 champions were the Fiddlin’ Five. Perhaps the most famous of them all were Rupp’s Runts, Adolph Rupp’s 1966 team that lost to Texas Western in the title game.
Kentucky’s comebacks were just part of what made the NCAA tournament special this year. It was filled with overtime games, buzzer-beaters and surprises from the likes of Valparaiso and Rhode Island, Stanford and Utah.
But the Utes, who won the championship in 1944, couldn’t pull off one more upset.
Utah, the second-best defensive team in the country this season, had held its five tournament opponents to 39 percent shooting and an average of 62.5 points.
Kentucky, which finished 29 for 57 from the field (51 percent), chipped away at the lead in the second half by scoring on 7 of its first 10 possessions.
Kentucky went on a 9-0 run and took the lead for the first time since early in the first half at 60-58 with 7:16 to play. Sheppard capped the rally with a breakaway dunk after he stole the ball from Hanno Mottola.
Utah got the lead back at 62-60 on a driving layup by Andre Miller with 6:16 left and even extended it by two more points when Miller fed Alex Jensen for a layup 23 seconds later.
But a 3-pointer by Cameron Mills, Kentucky’s fifth of the game - all in the second half - and a driving jumper by Sheppard with 4:53 left gave the Wildcats the lead for good.
Sheppard’s jumper was Kentucky’s last field goal until a dunk by Wayne Turner with 12 seconds to play. The Wildcats went 11 for 12 from the foul line down the stretch and Utah’s solid offensive game went to pieces as it scored on just two of its last 10 possessions.
“They did a good job defensively,” Utah center Michael Doleac said. “I had a hard time finding the open man and I had my shot blocked a couple of times and I knew that would happen. They are a solid team and a good program and well coached.”
Padgett led the Wildcats with 17 points, while Sheppard had 16.
Miller led the Utes with 16 points, while Mottola and Doleac each had 15 and Jensen 14.
As the trophy was presented by Selection Committee chairman C.M. Newton, who also happens to be the athletic director at Kentucky and the man who picked Smith to succeed Pitino, the crowd chanted “Tubby, Tubby.”
It seemed implausible that any coach could be more popular in Kentucky than Pitino had been in leading the program back from one of its lowest points following probation. But Smith may have topped him in the one year since Pitino left to coach the Boston Celtics.
Smith was asked if he thought as the final seconds ticked away about the doubters who questioned his hiring.
“It never crossed my mind,” he said. “I was happy for my players, my staff and our fans. This program is more than a basketball program. It is really a way of life, and people live and breathe Kentucky basketball. I’m just happy to be a small part of it.”
Kentucky is now 7-3 in NCAA championship games.
Utah (30-4) had beaten defending national champion Arizona in the West Regional final in a 25-point laugher. The Utes had to hang on to beat North Carolina in the Final Four, but they couldn’t do it against Kentucky as the Wildcats wore down the nation’s top rebounding team.
Utah finished with a 39-24 advantage on the boards, but in the later possessions Kentucky didn’t miss many shots.
The largest halftime deficit overcome in a title game had been eight points. Loyola (Ill.) beat Cincinnati 60-58 in overtime in 1963 after trailing 29-21 at the half.
Kentucky 78, Utah 69
Utah (30-4) - Mottola 4-10 6-6 15, Jensen 5-6 3-3 14, Doleac 5-12 4-6 15, Miller 6-15 4-7 16, Hansen 1-6 0-0 2, Johnsen 3-4 0-0 7, McTavish 0-0 0-0 0, Jackson 0-1 0-0 0, Caton 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 24-55 17-22 69.
Kentucky (35-4) - Edwards 2-7 0-0 4, Padgett 6-10 4-4 17, Mohammed 5-9 0-0 10, Turner 2-5 2-4 6, Sheppard 7-14 2-2 16, Magloire 2-3 3-3 7, Evans 3-4 2-2 10, Mills 2-4 2-2 8, Smith 0-0 0-0 0, Bradley 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-57 15-17 78.
Halftime-Utah 41, Kentucky 31. 3-Point goals-Utah 4-14 (Jensen 1-1, Doleac 1-1, Johnsen 1-2, Mottola 1-3, Jackson 0-1, Caton 0-1, Hansen 0-2, Miller 0-3), Kentucky 5-17 (Evans 2-2, Mills 2-4, Padgett 1-5, Turner 0-1, Sheppard 0-2, Edwards 0-3). Fouled out-Miller. Rebounds-Utah 39 (Doleac 10), Kentucky 24 (Evans 6). Assists-Utah 12 (Miller 5), Kentucky 15 (Edwards 5). Total fouls-Utah 18, Kentucky 15. A-40,509.