Sweet 16: Kentucky's best NCAA Tournament moments
With all due respect to the non-Kentucky rest of the SEC, you all don’t feel this March loss like BBN feels this March loss. Look, this is our thing. For most of the SEC, pulling the plug on March basketball is like pulling the plug on Jamaican bobsledding. You’ll miss a compelling story, but nothing of any real significance. At Kentucky, an Elite Eight is a lost season. In Knoxville or Columbia or College Station, it would get a street named for the coach.
How did it get this way? Tradition, the same thing that has historically enabled most of those SEC schools to bend Kentucky over their knee like Vandy’s marginally more athletic step-brother on football Saturdays.
Talking about that tradition, on a day the Cats likely would be playing in the Sweet 16, here are Kentucky’s top 16 all-time NCAA Tournament moments.
16. Sean Woods’ (unfortunately forgotten) shot in 1992
It’s a bucket that will live in history. Kentucky, fresh off the first losing season in over 60 years, got blasted with the NCAA hammer in 1989. Coach, gone. Good players, gone. What was left? A frantic New Yawk import named Rick Pitino and a handful of gritty, tough kids nobody wanted. Those kids, along with Jamal Mashburn, grabbed a 103-102 lead over Duke in the 1992 NCAA Mideast Regional Final on Sean Woods’ crazy bank shot with 2.1 seconds left. Had the game ended there, it would be a story that lived forever. And we’ll pretend it did.
15. De’Aaron Fox owns Lonzo Ball
The 2017 Kentucky team ended up a buzzer-beater from the Final Four (like the 1992 team above), but it did provide at least one memorable moment. A rematch with UCLA in the Sweet 16 gave De’Aaron Fox a chance to matchup with hyped point guard Lonzo Ball, and to avenge a 97-92 regular season loss at Rupp Arena to the Bruins. Ball had 14 points and 7 assists in that first game, while Fox had 20 points and 9 assists. There was no comparison in the rematch, as UK rolled 86-75, with Fox going for a career-high 39 points against Ball.
14. A path of destruction en route to the 1993 Final Four
Kentucky’s appearance in the 1993 Final Four was the school’s first since 1984. While Rick Pitino’s team lost in the national semifinals, their blazing path to New Orleans was something to remember. In its first four NCAA games, that ’93 UK team (led by Jamal Mashburn) won by 44, 21, 34 and 25 points. And those games weren’t again Little Sisters of the Poor. UK crushed No. 16 Wake Forest and No. 11 Florida State in the Southeast Regional in convincing fashion. UK led Wake 60-26 at halftime, for instance. It took 3 more years to claim a title, but Pitino’s squad delivered a message that UK was back.
13. An Elite Eight victory over UNC sealed with a kiss
In 2011, when Calipari’s 2nd UK squad, a young team even by his standards, began bouncing superior teams out of the NCAA Tournament, UK fans enjoyed a ride as an unlikely underdog. UK was a No. 4 seed and having knocked off top-ranked Ohio State (See below), they faced No. 2 seed North Carolina for a spot in the Final Four. The 76-69 win was hardly unforgettable, but a late-game encounter between Calipari and junior guard DeAndre Liggins said it all.
12. Delivering payback to IU in 2012
When Indiana upset Kentucky in December 2011, it certainly made many a Hoosier day. IU still celebrates Christian Watford’s regular-season buzzer beater with the ferocity they used to reserve for Bobby Knight titles. When Kentucky got a shot at revenge in the Sweet 16, the ‘Cats were ready. IU shot 52% in the rematch, but Kentucky handled them easily 102-90, led by 24 points from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. At least IU still has their custom-made popcorn boxes with Watford’s regular-season moment.
11. UK upsets unbeaten Wichita State
The NCAA loves to do David and Goliath, and in 2014, they got a chance for a weird twist on the familiar tale. The top-seeded Wichita State Shockers were No. 2 in the nation, and entered the Tournament at 34-0. Kentucky was a young, underachieving team that went 24-10 and limped in with a No. 8 seed. But when they met in a 2nd-round showdown in St. Louis, Kentucky not only gave the Shockers all they wanted, but pulled out a surprising 78-76 upset, led by 39 points by the twin Harrison brothers, which started a trend …
10. Aaron Harrison’s big shots
After Kentucky knocked off Wichita in 2014, it then won a trio of games on crucial late shots from freshman guard Aaron Harrison. His big shots were key in a 74-69 win over Louisville, and then he won consecutive games in the final seconds in a 75-72 win over Michigan and a 74-73 Final Four win over Wisconsin. Yes, the Wildcats ran out of mojo in the final against UConn, but Harrison’s run of huge shots is unmatched in UK history, and is nearly unmatched in the history of college basketball.
9. Shocking Ohio State in 2011
The 2011 Kentucky Wildcats were an up-and-down kind of group, long on talent and short on experience. They lost 6 SEC road games and reached the Big Dance as a No. 4 seed. UK faced No. 1 overall seed Ohio State in a Sweet 16 matchup in Newark. Overachieving UK senior Josh Harrellson outplayed Ohio State star Jared Sullinger (and tattooed Wilson on his chest in a memorable sideline save), and UK was poised for an upset. A Brandon Knight jumper provided the winning margin and UK shocked the top ranked team in college basketball.
8. Ralph Beard owns Bob Cousy in 1948
Kentucky’s story of NCAA titles starts in 1948, and while the NCAA Tournament was a much smaller battle, UK didn’t exactly walk into the title. The 1948 UK team, which went 36-3 for the season, had to play Holy Cross in New York in the NCAA semifinals. Now that doesn’t sound like much, but Holy Cross was led by point guard Bob Cousy. Yes, that Bob Cousy. Not only did Kentucky win 60-52, setting up an anticlimactic title win over Baylor three days later, but Cousy was held to 5 points and whipped by UK guard Ralph Beard. Had point-shaving not cost Beard his basketball career, he might be the more famous name from that game.
7. The “Fiddlin’ Five” shuts down Elgin Baylor
Kentucky’s 1958 team, nicknamed the Fiddlin’ Five, wasn’t Adolph Rupp’s usual dominant squad. But they found a way to win, at least until the NCAA Finals, when they were set to face Seattle and all-time legend Elgin Baylor. Nobody in college basketball could defend Baylor, but Rupp came up with a brilliant strategy, isolating Baylor defensively and forcing him to guard slashing Wildcat John Crigler. Crigler went right at Baylor, got him into foul trouble and helped hound him to a 9-for-32 shooting performance, as UK won Rupp’s 4th title, 84-72.
6. Eight was great in 2012
After surviving a semifinal win over Louisville, Kentucky had to return 2 nights later and face Kansas. Kentucky is 23-9 all-time vs KU, and had beaten them in the season’s second game 75-65. History repeated itself neatly as UK grabbed an early advantage and held on late for the school’s 8th NCAA title, 67-59. It was especially nice for John Calipari, who had to still have nightmares from his Memphis team’s 2008 choke job against KU in that year’s NCAA final.
5. Goose Givens dominates 1978 NCAA final
Jack Givens is exactly the kind of player you may never see again. He was a 6-4 forward, a good, not great shooter, and a good, not great rebounder. He was an above-average 4-year player who left UK 2nd on the career scoring list, but he only played 2 unspectacular seasons in the NBA. But in the 1978 NCAA title game, Givens was absolutely red-hot. Drilling mid-range jumpers all game long, he racked up 41 points in UK’s 94-88 triumph. The best bucket might have been the last, when Givens somehow hit a jumper dead on the baseline off the backboard. It might have been impossible as a matter of physics, but it made for some great basketball.
4. Taking care of business in 1996
Pitino’s 1996 UK squad, a 34-2 team, was arguably the most dominant college hoops team of the last quarter century. With future NBA players buried on the bench, UK blasted through everybody, including a Tim Duncan-led Wake Forrest team in the Elite Eight. The Final Four brought a return match with No. 1 UMass, which had dealt UK an early loss, and its cocky young coach, John Calipari. After UK took care of business, they got Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse squad in a running-on-empty final. UK nabbed the school’s 6th NCAA title with a 76-67 title game win.
3. UK ruins IU’s perfect 1975 season
Take 2 coaches who don’t especially like each other — UK’s Joe B. Hall and Indiana’s Bob Knight. Let IU beat UK in the regular season by 24 points, with Knight either tapping or thumping Hall in the back of the head in a late-game confrontation. Now give IU an undefeated season and pit them against UK in the Elite Eight. In a game as legendary as Hall’s pregame speech, Kentucky toppled the Hoosiers, 92-90, ruining IU’s season and sending the ‘Cats to the NCAA title game.
2. Coming back on Duke, then coming back on everybody in ’98
Kentucky’s 1998 team was supposed to be a group in transition. It was new coach Tubby Smith’s first team and was a squad decidedly short on NBA-level players. But a veteran team gelled under Smith’s easygoing style, and Kentucky formed a team that was always ripe for a comeback. Down 17 midway through the 2nd half of the Elite Eight matchup against Duke, UK rallied for a memorable 86-84 win. In the Final Four, UK trailed Stanford by 10 early in the 2nd half, but won in overtime. They continued the script in the title game, falling behind Utah by 10 at the half but rallying late for a 78-69 win a most unexpected NCAA title.
1. Winning the game they couldn’t lose against Louisville
Kentucky and Louisville have met 5 times in the NCAA Tournament, but 2012’s Final Four meeting was undoubtedly the most important. Given that Rick Pitino was at Louisville, that Calipari had his most talented team, and that UK was at 14 years and counting since their last NCAA title, the ‘Cats couldn’t lose. And they didn’t. Led by 18 points, 14 boards, 5 blocks, and a “THIS IS MY STATE” final shout from Anthony Davis, UK got the 69-61 win.