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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Swarming Kentucky Meets Final Expectations

EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey -- The pressure is off.

Because the pressure was on.

The Kentucky Wildcats can finally exhale.

They didn't blow the NCAA basketball championship in a year when it was theirs to lose.

The Wildcats got the title with a 76-67 victory over Syracuse on Monday night, a loss that earned the Orangemen the respect few gave them going in.

Kentucky's first national title in 18 years but sixth in school history, second only to UCLA's 11, came through the scoring of senior Tony Delk and freshman Ron Mercer, who combined for 44 points.

Delk, voted the outstanding player, finished with 24 points and tied the championship game record with seven 3-pointers. The Wildcats also tied a record by finishing with 12 3s, critical in cracking Syracuse's 2-3 zone.

Despite giving up the treys, Syracuse limited Kentucky to 38 percent shooting from the field, the lowest percentage by the winner in an NCAA title game in more than three decades.

Mercer came up with a career-high 20 points, accounting for all but six of the points the deep Kentucky bench provided. More important, the extra bodies enabled the Wildcats to keep up the defensive pressure.

Syracuse finished with 24 turnovers, 19 more than it had in the semifinal win over Mississippi State. Syracuse's lack of depth was apparent after it played only three reserves, who between them took one shot and did not score.

Syracuse, a 14-point underdog, now has the most college basketball tournament victories without a title -- 35.

"We knew it would be tough," Orangemen coach Jim Boeheim said. "Kentucky made a couple of great plays when they had to. Delk is a great senior and a great player."

John Wallace, a senior who returned to school rather than enter the National Basketball Association draft last year, finished with 29 points and 10 rebounds. But he left the game in tears when he fouled out with 1:06 to play and Kentucky leading 72-67.

Kentucky coach Rick Pitino said he wouldn't be celebrating too long.

"I'm not relieved," he said. "We've got to go out and get a big man. Recruiting is on my mind now. I'm going to allow myself a day or two to enjoy it."

But back on campus in Lexington, some 10,000 Kentucky fans were none too hesitant to rush into the streets just minutes after the final whistle. Revelers overturned a television station's vehicle, tossed people over their shoulders and climbed utility poles in celebration.

A pickup truck had its front windshield shattered and cab collapsed, and the hood was covered with footprints and dents as people climbed on top. People standing atop a phone booth crushed that, too. Police said there had been no arrests early Tuesday, and one injury report, for a possible broken ankle.

Earlier, some fans cried, others hugged. Some just sat quietly and smiled. However Kentucky's faithful celebrated, one emotion seemed drawn on every fan's face -- relief.

Pitino was so relieved to get his first NCAA title that he even dished out a compliment to President Bill Clinton, who phoned in with the obligatory congratulations to the coach after the final.

"It was very exciting," Pitino said. "He is very knowledgeable about basketball. He said he had never seen a game in which a team missed so many short shots and still won. I told him it was a tribute to our defense."

Clinton also spoke to Delk and congratulated Syracuse coach Boeheim for having players who "played their hearts out," adding: "You had a brilliant tournament, that's a real tribute to you and them."

In the Syracuse locker room, Wallace, disconsolate over fouling out, waved off the chance to talk to the president.

(The Baltimore Sun, AP, Reuters)