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March 30, 1996

Tony Delk

Ron Mercer

Rick Pitino

Mark Pope

Jeff Sheppard

Antoine Walker


COACH PITINO: First, I'd like to say I'm an alumnus of Massachusetts. I'm proud of our ball club, but as an alumnus of that school, why, I can't say enough of that team. 99 percent go under with the pressure we were applying, and they're a remarkable group. We did a great job in the first half of executing, half court offense. What we were trying to do was turn the thing around and get them in foul trouble in the half court game, powering it into the interior by applying 2, 3, 4 and then we turned around and applied great defense. We had to get Travieso in foul trouble. I think the young man to my right played magnificently with pressure on the line. I knew he was always great, that's why I recruited him. He showed me something tonight that really doesn't surprise me. But when a freshman can do that under the influence of that much pressure, it bodes well for the next three years that Ron Mercer has -- these two guys to my left made big free throws and came through, and I'm proud of all of them.

Q. Jeff, if you could talk a little bit about your play over the last four or five minutes and what thoughts were going through your mind when you had to come in with Tony going out like that.

JEFF SHEPPARD: Tony got cramps at the end of the game, and Coach put me in. You don't think about much, you just kind of react to what happens. They were applying some tough pressure. We just tried to have an attack mentality and breaking their pressure. And we were successful doing that.

Q. For Mark and Antoine. Camby put up big numbers on him, and it seemed like it was more difficult this time than last time. Could you discuss the post defense?

MARK POPE: I asked you all for advice yesterday and you didn't have any. So who knows, he's the best player in America, and he plays great every night. And he's a great player.

ANTOINE WALKER: Well, I think he played great. I think we did a great job against him early. He's a great player. He's a tough player to stop. He's the guy that can handle the ball. So we knew he was going to get his points. Our job was to try to stop the other guys. Our guys did a great job shutting the other guys down. It's team defense. We don't worry if Camby gets 30, 40 points.

Q. Antoine, I don't know if you guys saw the papers today, but there was a lot of talk about how this season would be a failure and your coach would be a failure if you didn't win tonight. Did you guys feel that kind of pressure? What kind of feelings do you have now?

ANTOINE WALKER: No, we don't believe that. We've had a great season so far. We've been a team that sets some goals for ourselves and we fulfilled every one, except the last one left for Monday night. We don't care about pressure. That's good pressure, it makes us work harder. Everybody expected us to fold this year. We had 11, 12 guys who played great together so far this year. And that's what makes us go every day. When people try to put us down and think we're going to fold, it makes us work harder and harder.

Q. Tony, what happened in the last couple of minutes?

TONY DELK: I started getting leg cramps. And I think Sheppard came in. I think throughout the year, when you have a player like that on the bench, I push him every day, and he pushes me every day. We have a lot of faith in Jeff. And he gives us a big lift.

Q. There was a lot of talk this year about how you would perform in a close game down the stretch. How did you think you handled that?

ANTOINE WALKER: I guess we handled it well. We practice every day against each other. We always get experience every day. We weren't worried about the game. It was tight, but we handled it well. It was very difficult for us, but we handled it well, and we're happy.

MARK POPE: I think UMass is a great team and they could do a lot of different things. And the last few minutes they had to put a lot of pressure on us and they did and they caused some turnovers. Obviously, we would wish to have no turnovers in the game. But they're a great team and you're not going to escape.

Q. For Mark and Antoine. Your pressing, trapping defense has a reputation of being great, but I understand your full court -- your front court defense has improved steadily as the season goes on, and could you comment about that?

ANTOINE WALKER: That's something we worked on, but we're not muscle guys; we're guys that use our quickness. When we double down on big guys and try to help each other out as much as possible, that's the only way we can stop people. We're not 250, 260, where we can sit aside and bang people.

MARK POPE: We're trying to use our strength, which is quickness, and go for the steals. And hopefully it's gotten better.

Q. Antoine, with all the hype of this game, there's one more game to play. Could you kind of talk a little bit about looking ahead towards Syracuse?

ANTOINE WALKER: We look forward to playing them. We've been waiting a lot of -- Syracuse has been waiting a lot of years to play a championship game. I'm going to enjoy the victory tonight and get ready for tomorrow.

Q. When you guys were up 15 points, did you have any sense that you were about to make them break or did they just stay poised the whole time?

MARK POPE: I think everybody has written about it and talked about it, about the character of these guys on UMass and how tough they are. I don't think you can expect to blow a team that's this tough and with as many good players as they have, you can't blow them out. They're too big and strong and poised and tough. We knew it was going to be a 40 minute game and we are fortunate to get on with the victory.

Q. Tony, the first UMass game, did that stick with the team for a while and does this put it to rest?

TONY DELK: After we lost the game, we put it to rest. And we were hoping that we got an opportunity to play them again and it happened. When you lose that early in the season, you learn from your mistakes. And I think we did a good job of that. That particular loss makes you a much better team.

Q. Could you talk a little bit about your play, Ron, and especially the stretch where you hit the driving layup and hit the 3 after that?

RON MERCER: When I got it in the game, I knew my time was limited. And when I got in, I just wanted to play hard. So once I got in, I tried to go in and play hard and give it all I've got. And that's basically what happened.

Q. This is for Tony and Ron. What effect did you think that you had forcing Padilla away to start the offense?

TONY DELK: We were out there trying to press him, trying to relieve some of the pressure off our big men. And I thought when the guards came off the bench, it was our job to press and keep our hands up. It's hard trying to guard those guys. They're mentally tough, and we knew that. We were trying to rally, but they did a good job of handling our press.

RON MERCER: We just tried to limit the touch. If he has less touches, he can't shoot that much.

Q. Coach, there was a lot of talk before the game about each team's depth. Would you say that was a key in the game today, that you were able to go 10 deep?

COACH PITINO: John used his bench well early in the game but we were going to suffocate them at every level. We were not going to let them see an option. And we got in a little bit of foul trouble ourselves and Tony cramping up hurt us a little bit. But we were going to suffocate them. And we thought it would be very similar to the Wake Forest game. It was not going to be up tempo, not a low scoring game, but win with half court offense and half court defense. When you think about UMass, you get up. They're going to bite your arm off, take your elbow out, and foul you and you've got to be strong with the ball. And if you're not, you'll turn it over. And we did that a couple of times on rebounds and it hurt us.

Q. Playing off something that was said before, they questioned the team's ability to play close games. Can you talk about how the guys responded to that?

COACH PITINO: I think they did great and I think they had trouble, both. The thing I'm most proud of in the victory, since I've been a coach, pro and college, I see so many losses occur when the other team makes a run, because the offensive team takes its eyes off the basket and try to use the clock and the other team gets after you. We did a great job. Instead of bringing it out and letting them be the aggressor, we did a great job of attacking the bucket. Two or three times, once on the sideline, once underneath, we did a poor job of inbounding the ball. So the mentality of attacking their pressure was great and the inbounding a couple of times was poor. So I'm very excited. But people question, it's a legitimate question, how do you know? I can't tell you we're great, I can't tell you we're not because if you don't have a lot of -- all I can tell you is we're going to play great defense. We have terrific post play on our offense. And I always felt we were going to play very well in close games, because we're an improved free throw shooting game and we're a good passing team, with exception of what we did inside underneath. But I couldn't give you an answer, but tonight when they made their run, the thing I feel best about is there was no panic in the eyes of our players. They knew, though, that they were turning up the heat.

Q. Rick, the beginning of the second half, Tony made the two cuts to the bucket and got layups and got fouls on Travieso. Was that something you put in for that specific purpose and can you talk about that?

COACH PITINO: No, it's been with us the whole season. We run some back picks, but we try to really post up our twos and 3's, and sometimes ones when Sheppard plays. And we feel that our twos and 3's jump so well and so strong in the lane that if we can get Camby and other people away from the basket and slice our twos and 3's, we can score some easy buckets.

Q. You're at a point now where some of your fans expected you to be all year. Can you talk about how you dealt with pressure and how the kids have dealt with it?

COACH PITINO: It's very difficult. I tell the guys sometimes -- you guys write a lot of mean spirited articles, there's no question about it. But I've been with the Knicks so I'm used to that. But I always turn it around to the flip side and tell the players this, for every writer that's mean spirited, because there's a guy in Boston that I've held in the highest esteem of any writer in the business and I read something printed and I was shocked at that. But for every bad article, you write ten great ones, and that's the game of life. I tell the guys, if you're going to go pro, if I ever count up the bad things that are said, and I get down about it, then I don't realize about all the great articles that are printed. So sometimes you have to hear that you're a failure. We admit that, we understand that. We say that if we didn't win it, we'd be a little disappointed or we'd be very disappointed because of the expectations. But to use words like "failure" to a basketball team, if that makes you happy, so be it. I won't argue the point, I won't chastise you. All I'm saying is there are a lot of good guys out there who are honest journalists who call it like it is. But if you think going to the Final Four and not winning is a failure, that's your opinion, you have a right to it. We have ours. There is pressure. We understand it, we fight through it and we try to win it.

Q. Coach, you've said that nothing would rank with Providence going to the Final Four in '87. Now this is your first championship game. How does this one rank and how would the win against Syracuse rank?

COACH PITINO: That's going to be a hard team to beat, because they pose problems for us. It would be tremendous to win the championship. And we're very excited to get to this point. You know, I'm proud of every team I coach. I'd like to win it every year. But I think if you stay at Kentucky, you do your job recruiting, you'll be in the hunt each year. We've been at it five years, and this is the first time we've gotten to the finals. We're very excited about that, but in no way do we underestimate Syracuse. We realize we'll have to play great to beat them. And we intend on playing hard as we possibly can and hopefully come away with a victory.

Q. Rick, you've got Tony Delk, Walter and Mark Pope as seniors, and Syracuse is probably in it because Wallace, their senior, decided to come back and play a senior year. Can you talk about the value of having seniors in an era where most of the star players seem to be leaving in sophomore or junior year?

COACH PITINO: The one thing you look at, with pro guys, Patrick Ewing, if you said, "Patrick, we'll give you a championship if you donate 15 million to charity," he'd donate the money. So many people want to win championships because you can put no dollar value on it, and the rest of your life you're regarded as a champion. For a John Wallace, you know that certain people shouldn't go pro. You're losing not our boyhood but an experience you can never replace. It's one thing about the education, everybody talks about, it's great to graduate. But a guy like John Wallace coming back to school, this experience is the experience of a lifetime that these guys are going through. In dollars and sense, you can't buy that. I would rather be dirt poor and have these experiences and what John Wallace is learning when he makes it, it was all worth it. I know Jim is real, real proud of him staying in school. I wish so many other guys would just get real, because the process, it's not what they think it is. It's a hard core business. It's a hard core job. And they're going to have plenty of time in life to work, so they should just enjoy this experience.

End of FastScripts....

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