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On This Date in Sports April 1, 1996: Kentucky Crowned

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

Kentucky beats Syracuse 76-67 in NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Game at the New Jersey Meadowlands. It marks the last time that the Final Four will be played in a traditional basketball arena, as all future Final Fours will be held in a dome for larger ticket availability. Tony Delk would earn the Most Outstanding Player award with 24 points, highlighted by seven three-pointers in the final.

When the season began, Kentucky was the overwhelming favorite to win the National Championship. The program, which had been rebuilt in six years from the shame of a recruiting scandal under Eddie Sutton to again one of the premier programs in the nation. With players like Antoine Walker, Tony Delk, Ron Mercer, and Walter McCarty, the Wildcats began the season ranked number one. Despite an early-season loss to UMass, coached by John Calipari, Kentucky clearly was the best team in the nation. They went into the tournament with a record of 28-2, despite losing the SEC Championship Game to Mississippi State 84-73.

With the #1 seed in the Midwest, Kentucky’s road to the Final Four began in Dallas, where they crushed #16 San Jose State 110-72 in the second round. It was an 84-60 win over #9 Virginia Tech. In the Sweet 16 at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Kentucky, continued to roll, crushing #4 Utah 101-70. In the Midwest Regional Finals, Kentucky cruised again, beating #2 Wake Forrest 83-63.

Syracuse was the unexpected team in the Final Four, as they started as the fourth seed in the West. The Orangemen coached by Jim Boeheim after holding a 24-8 record at the end of the Big East Tournament. The Orangemen began their journey in Albuquerque, where they beat #13 Montana 88-55 and #12 Drexel 69-58. In the Sweet 16 in Denver, Syracuse needed overtime to beat #8 Georgia 83-81 before upsetting #2 Kansas 60-57 to reach the Final Four.

Joining Kentucky and Syracuse in the Final Four were the only teams that beat Pitino’s Wildcats, UMass, and Mississippi State. UMass was expected to reach the Meadowlands, as they were the tournament’s number one overall, holding a record of 31-1 as the tournament began, with their only blemish a February 24th loss to George Washington. The Minutemen began their quest in Providence, easily beating #16 Central Florida 92-70, while they survived a second-round scare against #9 Stanford with a 79-74 win. In the Sweet 16 at Atlanta, Massachusetts beat #12 Arkansas 79-63, while in the Elite Eight, they beat #2 Georgetown 86-62.

Mississippi State, after beating Kentucky in the SEC Championship, was only given the #5 seed in the Southeast. The Bulldogs, coached by Richard Williams, defeated #12 Virginia Commonwealth 58-51 and #13 Princeton 63-41 in Indianapolis to reach the Sweet 16. In the Sweet 16 in Lexington, Mississippi State upset #1 UConn 60-55. They would then beat #2 Cincinnati 73-63.

There was extra excitement for the Final Four as it was held in the New York Metropolitan area for the first time since 1950. The two surprise teams met in the first Semifinal, with Syracuse beat Mississippi State 77-69. The game was tied at the half, but the Orangemen took over and outscored the Bulldogs 41-33 in the second half, with John Wallace leading the way with 21 points. In the main event semifinal, it is the top two teams in the country, with Kentucky looking to avenge a 92-82 loss to UMass in the second game of the season.  Kentucky took control of the game early, outscoring the Minutemen 36-28 in the first half. The rest of the way, they held off every comeback attempt, winning 81-74 to reach the championship game. In the semifinal, it was Tony Delk, pacing Kentucky with 20 points as UMass got 25 points from Marcus Camby.

The championship game saw Kentucky looking to complete its road to redemption by winning its first championship since 1978 and winning its sixth title overall. It was clearly Kentucky’s night to shine as they built a 42-34 lead at the half. Like their win over UMass two nights earlier, the Wildcats kept building a lead every time Syracuse threatened to make it closer. John Wallace had a big game for the Orangemen scoring a game-high 29 points, but it was Tony Delk who kept hitting the big shots, with 24 points, including seven three points baskets. Kentucky would win the game 76-67.