The last time Kentucky and Arizona played for a championship it was in the NCAA tournament in 1997. Now they get to do it again Friday night in the Preseason NIT.
After No. 8 Arizona got 22 points and 11 rebounds from Michael Wright and wore down Notre Dame 76-60 in the opener of Wednesday night's semifinal doubleheader, No. 11 Kentucky held off a furious second-half comeback by No. 24 Maryland and hung on for a 61-58 victory to set up an All-Wildcats championship game.
Arizona beat Kentucky 84-79 for the 1997 NCAA championship. But those were different teams than the young ones who face off for the Preseason NIT crown on Friday night.
This one looked like it would be easier than it turned out for Kentucky (3-0).
The Wildcats jumped in front in a hurry against Maryland (3-1) with Saul Smith and Tayshaun Prince nailing 3-pointers in the first 3 1/2 minutes. Price finished with 21 points and nine rebounds.
Keith Bogans came off the bench for 12 of his 17 points in the first half and Kentucky took advantage of eight steals and 13 Maryland turnovers in the first 20 minutes to open a 40-27 halftime lead.
"The first half, we were out of synch," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "I don't know if it's playing in Madison Square Garden. We have no real experience."
Maryland scored the first seven points of the second half but Kentuckresponded with a 7-0 run of its own, with Prince scoring five of the points.
Still the Terps kept battling and wiped out the deficit to tie the game at 52-52 with 6 1/2 minutes left on a Terence Morris basket. Morris led Maryland with 25 points.
Baskets by Marvin Stone, who had 13 rebounds, and Bogans, off a steal, restored a four-point lead for the Wildcats.
Kentucky was still up by three with 32.6 seconds to play when Desmond Allison got tangled up with a couple of Maryland players and turned the ball over. But Juan Dixon's 3-point attempt bounced off the rim in the final seconds and Kentucky hung on for the victory.
"The second half, we held Kentucky down and that gave us a chance," Williams said. "But we really lost it in the first half."
Williams saw a bright side to the setback.
"The loss was worth it if it tells us how we must play for a full 40 minutes."
Arizona coach Lute Olson said Kentucky can bring problems with it.
"That's what we need," he said. "Problems so we can solve them and get better as the year goes on."
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