‘We just delivered,’ Tony Delk recalls UK’s national title run in 1996

Published 2:42 pm Tuesday, February 14, 2023

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It didn’t take much to motivate Kentucky after the Wildcats lost to North Carolina in the 1995 Southeast Region finals. It was a setback that led to bigger and better things the following season.

“That was a real disappointing loss,” former Kentucky standout guard Tony Delk recalled.

It didn’t take long for Kentucky to recover from what could have been its second trip to the Final Four in three years. They rolled up their sleeves and went to work.

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The following season the Wildcats finished 34-2 and captured the school’s sixth national championship, a squad that will be honored Saturday when the Wildcats play host to Tennessee in Rupp Arena. The 1998 team, some of which were members of the national title two years prior, were part of Tubby Smith’s 1997-98 squad that brought home the seventh national championship.

“Coach (Rick Pitino) did a tremendous job of meshing talent as well as the egos,” Delk said. “The players put in the hard work from the start of the season (to the end).”

In addition to a bulk of returnees from the previous season, the Wildcats added Derek Anderson and heralded freshman Ron Mercer to the roster, adding even more depth to an already-experienced unit.

“We knew our team had gotten better and added more depth,” Delk said. “We knew we were going to be good and the team chosen to cut down the nets. We just delivered.”

Delk credited Pitino for making sure the Wildcats remained committed to doing what it takes to succeed during the regular season. The Wildcats split their first two games of the year, including a loss to Massachusetts, coached by current Wildcats coach John Calipari. Following a 92-82 setback to Calipari’s Minutemen, Kentucky ran the table in the Southeastern Conference and won 27 straight before losing to Mississippi State 84-73 in the league tournament finals.

“The collection of having depth and experience, a great coach as well as a great coaching staff to keep us focused and play tenacious defense,” Delk said. “Coach Pitino gave us freedom on offense, play to our talent and skill level. That’s what really helped us out.”

Although offense was a big part of the team’s success, Delk said defense was a top priority.

“Night in and night out, everybody was committed defensively, from the five guys on the court to the guys who came off the bench, we sacrificed a lot of our offense.” he recalled. “We believed in our defense, which is what really got us over the top to win by a large margin against most teams.”

Delk, one of the team’s top performers and Most Valuable Player in the national championship game, said it took chemistry and teamwork to achieve the ultimate goal of winning a national championship.

“You look at it collectively as a team, guys had to sacrifice and understand everyone has a role,” Delk said. “Everyone can’t be the star player, take all the shots and can’t play all of the minutes. You have to share in some of your success in order to be successful

“Even in a company, one person can’t run a company. It has to be all different parts and all different angles that people have to take. You have to let the star player do what he does and then the role player comes in and does his part. The role players are just as important as whoever the star player was on that team.”

Delk delivered big for the Wildcats in a 76-67 win over Syracuse in the championship game. Delk connected on seven 3-pointers and finished with 24 points.

“Getting that far and playing a lot of big games in my Kentucky career, I just thought of it as just another game,” Delk said. “I had to go out and deliver.”

To achieve that level of success, Delk added “you have to get lucky.”

“We knew coming into the (NCAA Tournament) with a long winning streak and being No. 1, there was going to be a lot of pressure. You’ve got to have guys tat have played in big games that understand, OK, just because there is pressure, you don’t fold under pressure. You embrace and we did a great job of embracing that.”