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The day before the Southeast Regional final, Kentucky coach Rick Pitino had made it a point to remind everyone that success hadn't gone to his team's head.

"We are a humble group of guys," he said.

They have every reason to be so now, after turning in one of the dumbest, most unsightly and inexplicable big-game performances in recent memory Saturday evening against North Carolina.

The Wildcats were expected to ride their depth and pressure defense straight into the Final Four. Having buried their three previous NCAA victims by an average victory margin of 31 points, they figured to wear down the Tar Heels and move on to Seattle as the favorite.

Instead, they came up against a smart, determined Carolina team and went utterly to pieces in a 74-61 loss. They panicked. Choked. You choose the verb. Their ashen-faced coach isn't likely to quarrel with it.

"I'm kind of stunned," Pitino said. "We have worked on the characteristics of being a team, but individuals showed up tonight instead of a team. I don't understand it. I really wish I had an answer to it."

We might start with Dean Smith, the wise old master who coaches North Carolina. Apparently, Smith isn't ready to concede the title of "best coach in America" to his young Kentucky counterpart just yet.

I've never been a huge Smith fan, but he did a masterful job of suckering the Wildcats in this one. First, he talked about how great Kentucky was, and how they had no weaknesses. Then he drew them into his lair by leaving the three-point line open and daring them to shoot.

It worked. Kentucky, which hadn't relied on the three as much as previous Pitino teams, chucked up 36 of them Saturday and made just seven. They shot just 28 percent overall -- by far their lowest percentage of the season.

Smith didn't want to seem smug -- not righteous old Dean -- but he admitted his strategy was to appeal to the egos of the Kentucky players. He figured he'd give them open shots and they'd be too proud to pass them up.

"We wanted them to think, 'What do you mean, you're not playing me tight? Watch me make it' ," Smith said. "I mean, it's human nature."

It's also pretty foolish. After five months of playing basketball at a high level, the Cats were supposed to play with a bit more poise. I haven't seen college kids make decisions like these since Animal House.

Junior forward Rodrick Rhodes was the worst of them all. During the week, Rhodes had made sneering comments about Carolina all-American Jerry Stackhouse. It was clear that Rhodes felt he was overlooked.

Rhodes did nothing to back it up against the Heels. He had seven points and zero rebounds in 29 minutes. He was 0-for-6 from three-point range. He never seemed to grasp the notion that he was playing right into Dean Smith's hands.

"I felt very much in control," Rhodes said afterward. "This team takes chances. You can't be afraid to want to make things happen."

That's true. But if Rhodes wants a lesson on how to make things happen within a seamless team concept, he might want to pop the videotape of this game into the VCR some night and watch Stackhouse.

There was some muttering here this week about Stackhouse -- much of it from Kentucky writers -- and how he wasn't worthy of being selected as Sports Illustrated's player of the year. But he silenced most of them Saturday.

Stackhouse is a marvelous talent. He can wow you with dunks when the situation requires. But most of the time, he plays a complete, controlled team game, in the Carolina mold.

Carolina did not have much depth this year. But Stackhouse's multiple skills helped close a lot of the perceived holes. His ability to rebound and play strong defense allowed Smith to use a small lineup and get away with it.

Perhaps his most vital, unappreciated skill is as a ballhandler against the press. Kentucky forced 20 turnovers, and Smith was sick about it afterward. But that's fewer than the Cats normally force, and it would have been much worse if not for Stackhouse.

He had six turnovers, but he also had 18 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, two steals and two blocks. Who said the comparisons to Michael Jordan were unwarranted?

"He played a great game tonight," Pitino said. "The great players -- the Michael Jordans -- always seem to become bigger in the second half. They get their teammates involved, and all great players let the game come to them by moving without the ball and waiting for opportunities."

No doubt, he was sending a message to his players. They didn't allow the game to come to them, and they're going home because of it.

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