It was Calipari’s “worst” team since taking the head coaching job at the University of Kentucky. It was one of Rick Pitino’s best teams, returning the majority of his Final Four team from last year, and the Cardinals were one of the preseason favorites to win the NCAA tournament. As predicted, the Cardinals beat the Wildcats today. But if you told me that this UK team of 4 freshman, 2 transfers, and 1 returning sophomore would lose to the #3 ranked team, on the road, in December, shooting an embarrassing 11 of 25 from the free throw line, and down by 17 with fifteen minutes left in the game... and we would only lose by three... I’d take it all day any day.
It was Ryan Harrow’s coming out party. We got to see Willie Cauley-Stein gettin jiggy with it Big Willie Style (sans the massacre at the free throw line). Archie Goodwin actually finished around the basket. Coach Cal got his first technical of the season... weirdly it was a technical this team needed. And Erin Calipari, Coach Cal’s oldest daughter, took to twitter to call out the Louisville fans who call her dad a “cheater” (#WordsWithMultipleMeanings). I also channeled my inner “Hey Soul Sister,” doing anything I could to will the Cats back from a 17 point deficit. But it was still a loss. And I hate losing.
I planned on doing this tribute/countdown earlier this month and got distracted, but there is no better time than now... because I need to cheer up. Often I take to you-tube and lose track of time when I have 1356 other productive things that I should be doing (like fixing my broken running toilet... hint, hint, did you read that, Dad?), and I find myself watching thousands of UK basketball clips that give me chills, goosebumps, a smile as big as MKG’s, and sometimes tears of joy. I was once asked who my favorite UK basketball player was. My response: “That’s like asking a parent 'Who is your favorite child?'" Parents don’t have a favorite child... you love them all equally with your whole heart.” Though I don't have a favorite player because I'm an equal-opportunity lover, I do however have favorite moments. In honor of our 8th National Championship, I will now present to you my eight most favorite UK moments in recent memory.
I have seen upteen hundred Kentucky basketball games in person. And for big games, there is no home atmosphere more electric than Rupp Arena. However, my favorite game atmosphere for a non-Rupp game was the 2002 Kentucky-Indiana showdown in Louisville’s Freedom Hall. Split right down the center at mid-court, half of the arena was in blue and the other half was in red (or crimson, or whatever they call it now). Mike Davis admitted that he hated Kentucky prior to the game, so it was no greater thrill to see the man have a nervous breakdown at mid-court at the end of the game to help UK secure a close victory.
Now, this is not a Kentucky Wildcat moment, but it involves two former Wildcats. Coach Calipari, in one of his many cheesy lines, always preaches to his teams to “be your brother’s keeper.” I think last year’s 2012 National Championship team did that better than any Kentucky team we have seen in decades. Those players have formed a brotherhood for life. Case in point: Anthony Davis (playing for the Hornets) gets in a little scuffle with an opposing player during a game against the Bobcats. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (playing for the Bobcats) runs across the court and knocks down an official to get to Davis to hold him back and calm him down. He didn't go to his current teammate... he went to his former teammate and best friend. Man, I miss these guys. Isn’t there some fax lying around (a la Randolph Morris style) that we can find to get them just one more year of eligibility?
Prior to 2010, I had been to 5 SEC basketball tournaments, and UK had not won a single tournament that I had attended. I was starting to think that I was just bad luck. But everything changed in 2010. It was Calipari’s first year, and with the likes of Wall, Cousins, Bledsoe, Patterson, Miller, et al. (how did we even lose a game that year?), and with the tournament in Nashville, tickets were impossible to get. With some luck and by the grace of God, my friend was able to score us tickets at face value... in the very top row of Bridgestone Arena. But it didn’t matter. We were in the arena and those tickets were worth more than gold. Literally. I could have sold that SEC tournament book of tickets for $2000. But I didn’t, of course. I went to the games... but did I mention that the championship game was Sunday at noon?... the night after I did waaayyyyy too many John Wall shots? I don’t think there is a word to describe how hungover I was that early Sunday afternoon. Consequently, I was completely stoic during that game. And for those who know me know that I am not a stoic fan. But I was scared that any screaming or unnecessary movements would cause me to have to hurdle people to get to the bathroom. So I stayed very still and didn’t cheer much out of respect for those sitting around me. When Mississippi State took a comfortable lead with a few minutes left, and for probably the first time in my life as a Kentucky fan, I had given up hope on a victory. But then the unthinkable happened. I jumped out of my seat so fast that I almost passed out. Seriously, my world started spinning and everything turned white for a second. WE WON WE WON!! Oh wait, we just tied... but HOLY CRAP this game is going to overtime!!! The reaction from the players brings a smile to my face every time...
Patrick Sparks made a lot of big shots in his career for Kentucky, but none was bigger than this (some would argue the three versus Michigan State in the Elite Eight, but we lost that game, so that three really meant nothing). It was the 2004 Kentucky-Louisville game at Freedom Hall. Louisville had a 32-16 lead at halftime. But Kentucky somehow found itself down by one point and drawing a foul while taking the last shot. Patrick Sparks at the free-throw line with no time left on the clock? Game over.
In 2011, Kentucky was a 4 seed in the toughest bracket imaginable going into the NCAA tournament. I won’t rehash how UK got completely screwed that year by the selection committee. Let’s just say that NO ONE in the national media gave Kentucky any love in getting past the Sweet Sixteen and the overall #1 seeded Ohio State. But Josh Harrellson’s fast ball into Jared Sullinger’s chest was a message to the world that this Kentucky team wasn’t backing down. I don’t recall how many laps I did around my house that night after the last play of the game, but I’m pretty sure I burned at least 1000 calories.
You can read my last blog about my hatred for Duke. The year was 1998 and it had been six years since Kentucky lost the infamous heartbreaker to Duke in the Elite Eight. So here Kentucky was again, six years later, in the Elite Eight versus Duke. This game meant revenge for every Kentucky fan across the globe. Duke had a 17 point lead with 11 minutes to play, but Kentucky kept chipping away little by little. Duke had used its final timeout with six minutes remaining, and Tubby (who had four timeouts left) refused to call a timeout to allow Duke to adjust. Pure genius. Kentucky took their first lead of the second half with this play... and the rest is history. I have this shot autographed and framed in my study...
Rupp Arena can get loud. Real loud. Any game against UNC is a big game, so when Kentucky and Tayshaun Prince took on UNC in Rupp Arena in December 2001, you expected Rupp Arena to have some energy. But I have never heard Rupp this loud. Ever. After Tayshaun’s first three, Rupp got loud. After his second, the place got real loud. After his third, Rupp was rockin’. Here is how Gerald Fitch described four and five: “My ears started ringing after the fourth one. After the fifth, they were hurting." Please note that the fifth three was from the “UK” center court logo. It was UNC 10, Tayshaun 15. And I thought the roof of Rupp Arena was going to collapse. That single moment was the most electric, energizing, amazing atmosphere that I have ever experienced in Rupp... and that says a lot. A whole lot.
I have sat here for the last thirty minutes trying to come up with the best single moment of the 2012 season. Boy, was that team special. The obvious moment was the Anthony Davis block on UNC’s John Henson in December... I believe that single moment set the stage for UK for the rest of the season. Then I thought about going for the tear-jerker: “One Shining Moment” is the best moment in all of sports. Regardless of the winner, it brings me to tears every time. There’s just something about Luther’s voice. As I stood in the Superdome watching the UK players watch “One Shining Moment,” it is a moment that will forever be engrained in my memory. I still can’t come up with my favorite moment... so I finally decided that you will get to see them all. For the 2012 UK CATSPY awards, the University Kentucky made their own version of “One Shining Moment.” Queue the tears.