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TUBBY SMITH MAKES NEW KENTUCKY HOME A PLACE OF PRIDE

Last spring, a few days before Tubby Smith was named to succeed Rick Pitino as the Kentucky basketball coach, a black columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader urged him publicly to turn down the job.

"I sincerely fear for your safety and the safety of your family," she wrote. "Kentucky fans aren't ready for a black head coach. The first time you lose a game, you will not be called a stupid coach.

"You will be called a stupid black coach."

But shortly before midnight Monday, Smith stood on a ladder in the Alamodome, snipping the championship net and shredding, once and for all, the myth that a man of color couldn't succeed as coach in the shadow of a bigot named Adolph Rupp.

The first black head coach in Kentucky history had just finished his first year at UK in majestic style, delivering the school's seventh NCAA championship and perhaps its most satisfying, a 78-69 comeback win over Utah.

Surely, they are calling Orlando "Tubby" Smith one thing and one thing only today: A great coach, worthy to take his place alongside all the legends of Lexington.

"It's certainly a wonderful, wonderful experience for me and my team to achieve this," Smith said. "It's the ultimate goal to win a national championship.

"This was a great college basketball game," he said, "and to come back the way we did took great effort and poise on our kids' part. . . . It'll take a while for this to sink in. Somebody ought to pinch me."

He wasn't expected to get this far. The Wildcats were not that talented a team, not by Kentucky's recent lofty standards, anyway. Smith inherited quality players, but he did not have the sort of star-studded roster that Pitino used to reach the previous two title games.

This year's Wildcats didn't have any All-Americans. They drew strength from the strong bond that developed between the players when Smith took over, kids who knew their roles and didn't try to step outside them.

Pitino, slick and self-absorbed, was the perfect coach for a bunch of hot pro prospects. But Smith's soft, modest demeanor was well-suited for a genial team of role players.

"Coach Pitino had so many people wanting so much from him," forward Scott Padgett said. "He was writing his book last year. He did commercials; he was on TV and radio shows.

"The big thing with Coach Smith," Padgett said, "was he came in right away and committed to being the coach of this team. He doesn't have nearly as many things on the outside, and I think he did that purposely."

Smith gave all of himself to his team, and the team reciprocated, hitting its stride in the second half of the season and drawing even closer emotionally when Allen Edwards' mother died of cancer just before the SEC Tournament.

In Monday's title game, they did it one more time. They fell behind by 10 points at halftime, just as they had done against Duke in the South Region final. And once again, they remained true to the system, confident Smith's pressing tactics and liberal use of
his bench would prevail in the end.

At halftime, with Utah leading, 41-31, it seemed Kentucky's magic had run out. Utah was no sleeper, no fluke. The Utes had the better individual players. Three of them -- Michael Doleac, Hanno Mottola and Andre Miller -- could be high NBA draft picks.

Utah's fundamentals were also a thing to watch, as they blocked out impeccably and held an amazing 24-6 rebounding edge in the first 20 minutes. The Utes also shot 57.1 percent in the half.

Still, Smith and his team didn't panic. He knew his depth and pressure would kick in late, and that's exactly what happened.

During the second half, when the Wildcats were making their decisive run, Utah's starters began to show signs of fatigue. They seemed a half-step slower in their cuts, a tad slower rotated to the shooters on defense.

It was especially evident in the Utes' half-court offense. Suddenly, the passing lanes seemed to shrink. Every shot was contested, and the shots stopped falling. During a 12-minute stretch, Utah made just two field goals, and that was the difference.

Smith also had his usual deft sense for substitutions. He went with reserve forward Heshimu Evans for long stretches of the second half, and Evans rewarded him with two big three-pointers.

Cameron Mills, another substitute, also made a couple of huge threes off the bench in the big run.

"I liked Evans shooting those threes," Utah coach Rick Majerus said. "We got here taking the big guns out. But you can't take out everybody.

"I have to give credit to Kentucky with their bench and their great effort in the second half," Majerus said. "But I don't want to take away from my team's effort, because it was sensational."

The Utes were one of the most amazing stories in a tournament filled with them. People were calling this the most exciting NCAA Tournament even before the Final Four, and the three games here only enhanced that notion.

In a tournament that was mostly about surviving, and about teams playing together to overcome great odds, it was a close-knit Kentucky team that was left standing in the end.

Most of them, anyway. When the final buzzer sounded, Mills fell to the court and lay there, crying. He was a former walk-on, a Lexington native who dreamed, like so many Kentucky kids, of one day getting to play in a game like this. Smith gave him his chance Monday.

"This isn't about me," Smith said. "It's the program, the players, the whole atmosphere of the program that wins and succeeds. I tell the players all the time it's amazing what you can achieve when you don't care who gets the credit."

The players and fans knew who deserved a lot of the credit, though. When Smith helped Mills to his feet, the thousands of blue-clad Kentucky fans began chanting "Tubby, Tubby . . . "

Moments later, after the net-cutting ceremony, Smith's players carried him off the floor on the shoulders. Then the band and the fans broke into a rousing rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home."

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