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TRIP TO FINAL FOUR FITS PERFECTLY IN WAYNE'S WORLD

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- When the Kentucky players got together for their game-day breakfast Sunday morning, point guard Wayne Turner was in an oddly quiet, almost sheepish frame of mind.

It was his 22nd birthday, you see, and he was hoping none of his teammates would remember. A year earlier, it had also fallen on the day of the regional final. No one had mentioned it until after the game, and Kentucky had beaten Utah to reach the Final Four.

"I'm one of those superstitious people," Turner said. "But they remembered. They sang 'Happy Birthday' to me at breakfast and embarrassed me. I said, 'Dang, I wish they hadn't done that, because now we might lose the game.' "

Sure enough, with 9:38 to play in the South Region final, Turner's worst fears seemed to be coming true. Duke was on the verge of making a wish and blowing out the Wildcats.

Kentucky was down by 17 points, 71-54, and no one sensed the gravity of the moment better than Turner, their floor leader.

He looked at Steve Wojciechowski, his backcourt rival for Duke, and gave himself an emergency pep talk.

"It was his game to that point," the 6-foot-2 Turner said. "I was angry and frustrated. And I said to myself, 'No way. No way. This is YOUR game. Time's running out. If you want it, you'd better hurry up and go get it.' "

Then Turner proceeded to take over the game and bring Kentucky back. Time and again, he drove to the basket and either scored or passed to a teammate for an open shot.

When he was through, the Wildcats had outscored the Blue Devils, 32-13, down the stretch to register an astonishing 86-84 victory and a trip to San Antonio.

And Turner, who finished with 16 points, eight assists, five rebounds, two steals and just one turnover, was named the most outstanding player of the regional.

"Wayne is very capable of that," said first-year Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, who reached his first Final Four. "We weren't able to get a lot of shots, so he had to create.

"He can penetrate on anyone," Smith said. "I think he's the best point guard in the country. He's been our best player over the last month, that's why we've had so much success."

The average hoop fan didn't know it, that's all. He hasn't gotten nearly as much attention as some other point guards -- like Mike Bibby, Ed Cota and, of course, Wojciechowski.

"It's really nothing new to me," Turner said. "In a way, it gets me fired up that they get all the hype and all the pub. It just makes me want to work even harder. One of these days, people will start to believe I'm just as good as those guys."

That day arrived Sunday, when the last quarter of the game turned into Wayne's World. He shredded the Wojciechowski myth, spitting out the letters of his name until there was nothing left but the "woe."

He beat "Wojo" baseline for a three-point play. He hit a runner off the glass. He drove and scored again. With Kentucky down, 79-75, he nailed a 10-foot pull-up in the lane. By that time, Wojo was backing off so far he could have been in the band.

"I saw him backing off me," Turner said. "He was backing deeper and deeper and I said to myself, 'I have to pull up and take my shot.' "

His teammates appeared to draw strength from the way he was beating Duke's leader. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils didn't react well to seeing an opponent rally. They won 20 games by 20 points or more this year and seemed startled by Kentucky's refusal to die.

Smith, who has coached all year in the shadow of Rick Pitino, might have won over his critics by making sound personnel decisions in the critical stretch run.

Smith, aware his post game wasn't working against Duke's man-to-man, went to a smaller lineup in the comeback. He used Manhattan transfer Heshimu Evans at power forward, and Evans rewarded his faith with a 14-point, 11-rebound performance.

"Kentucky has great kids," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "They have amazing camaraderie. They're in unbelievable shape. They never lost their poise."

He had been equally gracious and humble after the epic 1992 Kentucky-Duke NCAA clash. This wasn't quite as good as the Laettner game, but it's right up there.

I mean, when Shane Battier got ready to inbound the ball with 4.5 seconds left and Duke down by two -- with Kentucky not guarding him! -- who didn't have a flashback to Grant Hill and the last play of the '92 game?

Krzyzewski hadn't lost a regional final in seven tries before this. For Kentucky to come from 17 down in the final 10 minutes, well, it'll go down as one of the best comebacks in NCAA history.

This tournament never ceases to amaze. What did basketball lovers do right to get such an unending stream of terrific moments and stories? There's been more drama in the last 11 days than in the last 11 Super Bowls.

How can the Final Four possibly top this? Does anyone have a birthday coming up next weekend? And Wayne, how are you going to celebrate the regional title?

"I'm going to go home and relax and get ready for school tomorrow," Turner said with a laugh. "I can't celebrate. I'm glad now that everybody remembered my birthday. There's no better present than going to the Final Four.

"It's the greatest feeling in the world."

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