The Kentucky Wildcats had won the national championship in 1996 and been to the title game in 1997. The 1998 team was a different animal though. There were no great players and Rick Pitino was gone to the NBA. Tubby Smith was the new coach and even though the roster might not have been loaded, Tubby made sure the beat went on in Lexington.
1998 Kentucky basketball didn’t have a depth chart filled with lottery picks, as has been the case in this program’s past and future. Wayne Turner and Jeff Sheppard were the backcourt. Allen Edwards and Scott Padgett were at the forwards and Nazr Mohammed anchored the middle. No future stars in that lineup, or as up-and-comers in bench. Nor is that just the verdict of history—it was how the Wildcats were perceived at the time.
Kentucky still won big early season games over Purdue and Indiana, and even though they lost to Louisville, the ‘Cats rebounded to win all but one SEC game and then blew through the conference tournament behind the play of Sheppard.
The NCAA Tournament saw the beat roll on. The Wildcats were seeded #2 in the South Regional, and blowout wins over St. Louis and UCLA highlighted their march to the regional final, where a familiar foe awaited.
Duke was the regional’s top seed, and the Blue Devils’ epic 1992 win over Kentucky in this same round, lives on in sports lore and stuck in the craw of Wildcat fans. A great Sunday night in St. Petersburg would give the program the chance to exorcise some demons.
There was a lot of media hype about the possibility of a Duke-North Carolina battle for the national championship, and the Tar Heels were one of the three teams (along with surprises Utah and Stanford) to have already punched their Final Four ticket. For thirty minutes of play, it looked like the hype would live on. Duke led by seventeen points with less than ten minutes to play.
Then Kentucky roared all the way back. Sheppard finished with 18 points/11 rebounds and Scott Padgett buried a three-pointer with 39 seconds left that gave the ‘Cats lead. They won the game 86-84 and gave Duke fans a bitter memory of their own.
Now it was on to San Antonio and a Final Four battle with Stanford. The basketball world shifted its focus from Duke-UNC, to instead awaiting a Kentucky-North Carolina championship battle of the bluebloods.
But Utah ousted North Carolina in the first semi-final and Kentucky got the battle of its life in the late game. Stanford was physical down low, controlled the boards and the game went to overtime. Kentucky survived 86-85 behind Sheppard’s 27 points.
The national championship game with Utah wasn’t the coronation people were expecting. The Utes led by twelve in the early moments of the second half before Kentucky turned it around with some dominating defense. Utah would hit only four field goals the rest of the way. Sheppard scored 16 points and sealed Most Outstanding Player honors as Kentucky won 78-69.
Three straight appearances in the NCAA final and two rings under two different coaches were a supreme mark of greatness. And the 1998 Kentucky basketball championship came with some extra sweet revenge.