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SHEPPARD SHOWS KENTUCKY THE WAY TO THE TITLE GAME

Kentucky's Jeff Sheppard says one of his coaches gave him a sound piece of advice when he was a boy in Georgia, and he has tried to follow it ever since.

"Always live in the precious present," Sheppard said.

He admits it was difficult last year, when on the recommendation of former coach Rick Pitino he agreed to redshirt and postpone his senior season until 1997-98.

It was hard to sit and watch his teammates all year, especially when four of them fouled out and Kentucky lost in overtime to Arizona in the national title game.

But Sheppard knew Pitino had been looking out for his best interests. Kentucky had two similar players, Derek Anderson and Ron Mercer, who were ahead of him on the depth chart and destined to be chosen in the NBA draft.

Sheppard knew his chances of playing extensively in his final season, and impressing the professional scouts, would be enhanced greatly if he waited a year.

The scouts have taken notice.

Sheppard has been brilliant in this NCAA Tournament, raising the level of his play at every step of the journey. In Saturday night's national semifinal, he played the game of his career, leading the Wildcats to a thrilling, 86-85, overtime victory over Stanford and a third straight trip to the title game.

Sheppard scored a career-high 27 points -- six in overtime -- as the 'Cats survived another of those gripping finishes that have made this year's tourney one of the greatest in history.

"It feels great, not just individually, but to experience it as a team," said the 6-foot-3 Sheppard, who had six rebounds, four assists and two steals. "There's nothing like going through the good times and the bad times and then an NCAA Tournament with a team.

"There's nothing like being able to lean on your teammates' shoulders when you're not having a good day," he said, "and that's what it's all about."

There is, indeed, a sense of unity about Kentucky's team. It isn't nearly as talented as the two editions that preceded it, teams that sent six players on to the NBA. The sum is bigger than the individual parts.

Still, there comes a time when a team needs one player to emerge from the rest, a moment when a team's best athlete has to take it upon himself to be the star.

Sheppard seized the role Saturday night. He took the big shots in the stretch, and he made them. Late in regulation, he hit consecutive three-pointers to give Kentucky a 72-68 lead.

But Stanford, a relentless, physical foe, fought back and got the game into OT. Sheppard said he felt a surge of elation, nonetheless, at simply being part of such a wonderful game.

Then he had to calm down his coach, Tubby Smith.

"We had to straighten Coach out at the start of overtime," Sheppard said. "He was yelling at us, asking whose ball it was. We said, 'Coach, it's a new rule this year, they have a jump ball.'

"Five more minutes of basketball," he said. "We were excited to continue playing. It's the Final Four. Why not? Overtime game. You're tired, but we've been tired every day in practice."

Even though it was tied, you got the sense that Kentucky was the fresher team. Their depth had allowed them to press Stanford in the second half, and the Cardinal players were showing signs of weariness.

Once again, Smith showed his mettle as a coach. He used his bench early and often. He made key personnel adjustments. Three times, Kentucky came out of a timeout and Sheppard quickly made a three-pointer on a designed play. That's coaching.

Early in OT, Sheppard took advantage of Stanford's fatigue, driving down the lane to make a short shot off the glass. With 1:25 left in OT, he made the last of his four three-pointers from the top of the key to give the 'Cats an 82-78 lead.

If we've learned one thing over the last three weeks, it's that you can never count these teams out while there's a sliver of hope.

Twice in the last 44 seconds, the Cardinal nailed a three-pointer to cut a four-point lead to one. The last, by Peter Sauer, came with 9.2 seconds.

On the inbounds play, Sauer tied up Kentucky's Scott Padgett. But the possession arrow was pointing to Kentucky. Little things like that always seem to crop up in games like this, adding to the intrigue and drama.

What if the arrow, by simple happenstance, had been pointing the other way? What if Padgett's missed dunk late in regulation hadn't grazed the fingers of Mark Madsen, allowing Kentucky to retain possession?

That's what makes the NCAA Tournament such a rewarding spectacle -- that and watching players like Sheppard play to their absolute potential when it matters the most.

"His leadership and experience and maturity are so big for us," said Smith. "It tells a lot about the young man's character and values that he was willing to sit out last year. He's helped me a lot."

Sheppard will have one more opportunity Monday night, when he finishes his career in the title game. He says he has no regrets about redshirting a year ago. It's been fun, even the time spent sitting in street clothes watching.

"We have fun out there," Sheppard said. "When Coach prepares us for the game, he says 'We love playing basketball. Let's go enjoy it.' As kids growing up, that's what drives us -- the fun. And as college athletes, this is about as good as it gets."

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