75 from 75: UK NCAA memories

The NCAA is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the men’s basketball tournament, so we're remembering 75 of UK’s most memorable NCAA Tournament moments. Today is Part II.

Tubby Smith led the Wildcats to the National Championship in his first season as coach.

3-for-33: No sooner had Kentucky shaken free from a six-year jinx of unthinkable NCAA Tournament losses then here came a nightmare for the ages. Having finally reached the Final Four for the first time since winning it all in 1978, the Cats simply imploded in a 53-40 loss to Georgetown at the Kingdome in Seattle. All seemed well when Kentucky jumped ahead of the Hoyas and Patrick Ewing 29-22 at halftime. But then the wheels came off and the result was the most famous, or infamous, statistic that will never be forgotten by Cat fans – 3-for-33. In the second half, Kentucky made only three field goals in 33 attempts.
The facts are surreal. Kentucky went scoreless for the first 9 minutes, 56 seconds after intermission as the lead evaporated. By the final horn, not a single starter had made a field goal in the final 20 minutes.

UNDERDOG KENTUCKY: It certainly wasn’t a banner season by Kentucky standards, but the 1985 NCAA Tournament run was something to behold. After barely making the field as a No. 12 seed with a pedestrian 16-12 record (critics raged that UK’s tradition got them an undeserved bid), the Cats went on a roll. First up, Kentucky, banished to the West Region, upset No. 5 Washington 66-58 behind 29 points from Kenny “Sky” Walker. Two nights later, the Cats stunned No. 4 seed Nevada-Las Vegas 64-61 as Walker tallied 23 points to reach the Sweet 16. The Cinderella story closed the next week as No. 1 seed and third-ranked St. John’s proved too much in an 86-70 win in Denver. Future NBA standout Chris Mullin went off for 30 points in the victory to counter Walker’s 23. Staunch Cat fans will also point out it was Mullin who poked Walker in the eye and UK’s leader missed three minutes of action.

JOE B. HALL RETIRES: St. John was the winner of the game, but the throng of media after the final buzzer converged on the Kentucky side where UK coach Joe B. Hall was set to announce his retirement after 13 seasons. He chose his post-game radio show, hosted by the legendary Cawood Ledford, as the vehicle to break the news. The Cats were 18-13 in Hall’s final season.

WALKER'S PERFECT GAME: We all know how the Eddie Sutton era came to an embarrassing end, but it did start with so much promise at the 1986 NCAA Tournament. In the second game, Kentucky’s Kenny Walker was a perfect 11-for-11 from the field for 32 points as the No. 3 ranked Cats defeated Western Kentucky 71-64. Walker was also 10-of-13 from the foul line for an overall shooting line score of 21-of-24.

FOURTH TIME NOT A CHARM: There has long been a debate about whether it is really difficult to defeat the same team several times in one season. Kentucky found that out the hard way in the cruelest of fashions when the top-seeded Cats lost 59-57 to No. 11 seed LSU just one victory shy of the Final Four. UK had already defeated LSU three times that season, including the SEC Tournament.

KING REX: His career at Kentucky was short-lived, but Rex Chapman did go out with flare. In 1988, the sophomore scored 30 points in an 80-74 loss to Villanova. Unless of course, you abide by the NCAA penalties later imposed against the Kentucky program and vacated those games. In that case, Chapman didn’t play that night.

BACK WITH A VENGEANCE: NCAA sanctions had intended to leave the Kentucky program in ruin, but the Cats were on the fast track back to prominence thanks to its young and wildly popular coach Rick Pitino. After being banned from the NCAA Tournament for two years, Kentucky came back strong in 1992. On March 20 in Worcester, Mass., the East No. 2 seed Cats put a whopping six players in double figures in an 88-69 win over Old Dominion. John Pelphrey was tops with 22 points. Jamal Mashburn had 11 points and 13 rebounds.

CROSSING CAL'S PATH: It would be forgotten because of the incredible game that would follow two nights later, but once upon a time Kentucky and Rick Pitino clashed with UMass and future UK coach John Calipari in the 1992 East Region Sweet 16 contest. Jamal Mashburn erupted for 30 points to lead the 87-77 victory. But if not for a highly controversial technical foul against Calipari, Kentucky might not have won the game and the classic UK-Duke game might never have materialized. Cal’s Minutemen were on a roll, having trimmed UK’s 21-point lead to just two with less than six minutes to go. But then official Lennie Wirtz whistled Calipari for a technical from 50 feet away. UK immediately went on an 11-2 run and won going away.

Pitino led a great tournament run in 1993.

GREATEST GAME: The loss stings even to this day for Cat fans, but that doesn’t change the fact that Duke’s 104-103 overtime win against Kentucky in the 1992 East Region finals remains the greatest college basketball game ever played. Given the magnitude of the stage and the stakes at hand, the game captivated all of America. Even President Bush asked of the media the next morning: “Did you see the ending of the Duke game?” You know the details. Sean Wood’s apparent game-winner before the 75-foot pass to Christian Laettner for the turnaround buzzer beater. Should UK have guarded the in-bounds pass? Should Laettner have been ejected earlier for stomping on Aminu Timberlake’s stomach? Would UK have won had Mashburn not fouled out?

GOODNIGHT CAWOOD: How fitting that Cawood Ledford’s final radio call as the lengendary “Voice of the Cats” would be the Kentucky-Duke greatest game of all time? Ledford broadcast UK games for 39 seasons including 73 NCAA Tournament games. He was behind the microphone for the national title wins in 1958 and ’78. Shortly after the season, Ledford and UK’s “Unforgettables” were honored at Rupp Arena. One last time: “Hello everybody, this is Cawood Ledford.”

FINAL FOUR JUGGERNAUT: Clearly, Kentucky didn’t show any ill-effects of the heartbreaking loss to Duke because Rick Pitino’s club returned in 1993 to put together one of the most impressive runs to the Final Four ever achieved. The Southeast Region No. 1 seeded Cats blitzed Rider, Utah, Wake Forest and Florida State by an average score of 97-66. It followed an SEC Tournament spree during which UK averaged a 91-62 rout over three days stuck in a Lexington blizzard at Rupp Arena.

STUNNING PERFORMANCE: Inside the dizzying run to the 1993 Final Four was a 103-69 rout of Wake Forest in the Sweet 16 contest in Charlotte, N.C. The Deacons entered the game as the No. 3 seed but never had a chance as Kentucky blew out to a 20-4 lead that mushroomed to 60-26 by halftime. Travis Ford had 26 points on 10-of-11 field goals while Jamal Mashburn had 23 points.

STUNNING, PART II: Who knew the 103 points against Wake Forest was just a tune-up? Kentucky returned two nights later and, with a Final Four berth at stake, promptly dispatched No. 3 seed Florida State 106-81. This time Jared Prickett led the way with 22 points and 11 rebounds. The Seminoles were led by future NBA standout Sam Cassell.

NCAA TITLE ROBBED?: Here’s something to chew on. The argument can be made that Kentucky was robbed of the 1993 NCAA title because its Final Four overtime loss to Michigan should never have occurred because the team should never have been assembled. Years later, the NCAA sanctioned the so-called “Fab Five” freshman-dominated team. In one of the most blatant violations, there were charges of money laundering over payments from a booster resulting in an investigation that included not only the NCAA but the FBI, IRS and U.S. Justice Department. No question Kentucky arrived at the Superdome as the hottest team in America and nearly defeated the Wolverines. Jamal Mashburn, who had 26 points, fouled out as did Jared Prickett. Michigan was led by Chris Webber with 27, Jalen Rose with 18 and Juwan Howard with 17.

SLEEPLESS SEATTLE: It is rare throughout history when Kentucky does not perform well when a trip to the Final Four is at stake, but that’s exactly what happened on March 25, 1995, in Birmingham, Ala. Top-seeded and No. 2-ranked Kentucky stumbled mightily in a 74-61 loss to fourth-ranked North Carolina one win shy of a trip to Seattle. Tony Delk led UK with 19 points but went only 7-for-21 from the field. UK was 21-of-75 overall. North Carolina was led by Jerry Stackhouse with 18 points and 12 rebounds. And surprise, surprise, the Tar Heels’ Rasheed Wallace was called for a technical for elbowing Andre Riddick in the head.

ROAD TO No. 6: The emotionally difficult loss to North Carolina one win shy of the Final Four in 1995 could have marked the beginning of a difficult stretch for the Cats. Instead, it served as a launch pad to a three-year stretch unrivaled in recent memory. After dispatching San Jose State and Virginia Tech with ease, top-seeded Kentucky met fourth-seeded Utah in the Midwest Region Sweet 16. The results were unchanged as the Cats blitzed Rick Majerus’ club by 31 points, topping 100 for the second time in three tournament games. A team loaded with future NBA draft picks was led by Antoine Walker’s 19 points and 18 from Derek Anderson.

Cal crossed paths with the Cats while at UMass.

WAKE FOR THE DEACONS:: Future NBA legend Tim Duncan led Wake Forest into the Midwest Region finals with a good shot at upsetting UK and reaching the Final Four. Instead, Tony Delk scored 25 points as Kentucky blitzed the Demon Deacons 83-63. Incredibly, the score was 38-19 at halftime in the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

CALIPARI ENCOUNTER: Four seasons would pass before Pitino and Calipari and Kentucky and UMass would be reunited during NCAA Tournament play. Only this time, it was Calipari’s Minutemen who were ranked No. 1 in the nation and had already defeated UK 92-82 in the season opening Great Eight event at Auburn Hills, Mich. Most agreed this Final Four classic was really the championship game. UMass was No. 1 and 35-1. Kentucky was No. 2 and 32-2. The other half of the bracket included two Cinderella stories – fourth-seeded Syracuse and fifth-seeded Mississippi State, making its fist Final Four appearance. Kentucky raced ahead to a 36-28 halftime lead and pushed it to 15 points with 18 minutes remaining. The lead was still 10 with just over two minutes to go. UMass made a late charge, cutting the to three points with 1:02 to go but never got closer as UK made its final eight free throws for the 81-74 win. Tony Delk topped UK with 20 points. Marcus Camby led UMass with 25.

SIXTH BANNER: Don’t tell Kentucky fans there was anything anticlimactic about winning the sixth national championship in school history, even if the Cats used its defense to win 76-67, the fifth-lowest point total of the season. Rick Pitino used only seven players for the most part down from his normal 10 and even survived in a pace better suited for Syracuse. But the offense was quite memorable. MVP Tony Delk tied a championship game record with seven 3-point baskets on the way to 24 points and freshman Ron Mercer came off the bench for 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting.

DOUBLE TROUBLE: Kentucky entered the 1997 NCAA Tournament looking to duplicate the feat accomplished by Duke in 1991-92, win back-to-back national crowns. That began to become a distinct possibility when top-seeded Kentucky easily handled second seed Utah 72-59 to win the West Regional for the trip to the Final Four. Ron Mercer led the way with 21 points.

BOXING, NOT BASKETBALL: Ask any Kentucky fan why the Cats did not win the NCAA three straight seasons and many will blame the 1997 runner-up finish on an exhausting, physical Final Four confrontation with Minnesota. Clem Haskins’ Gophers were the No. 1 seed from the Midwest Region. Minnesota would outrebound UK 48-34, but would also commit 28 fouls allowing the Cats to go 23-of-34 from the foul line. UK won the game by nine, 78-69, and outscored Minnesota from the foul line by 11.

OVERTIME HEARTBREAK: Kentucky returned two nights later to battle Arizona, the surprise finalist as the No. 4 seed out of the East Region. Arizona was only ranked No. 15 in the nation when the tournament began but caught fire in March behind a stellar lineup that included future NBA stars Mike Bibby, Miles Simon and Jason Terry. Kentucky battled Arizona to overtime before falling 84-79 in what would prove to be Rick Pitino’s final game as Kentucky coach. Scott Padgett led the way with 17 points while Simon had 30 for Arizona. Incredibly, Padgett, Ron Mercer, Wayne Turner and Jared Prickett would all foul out of the game and UK was already missing the team’s best player, Derek Anderson, who was recovering from knee surgery. That is reason No. 2 Kentucky did not pull off the hat trick. Anderson insisted he was ready to play, but Pitino steadfastly refused to risk the player’s lucrative NBA future.

GREATEST COMEBACK?: Based on the number of times CBS uses the clip, it would appear many still regard the 1992 UK-Duke game as the greatest ever in NCAA Tournament history. We now submit for entry another Kentucky-Duke classic, this one as the greatest comeback in NCAA play.
On March 22, 1998, Kentucky and Duke met and once again a trip to the Final Four was at stake. But when new coach Tubby Smith saw his team fall behind by 18 points in the first half, it seemed certain there would be no heart-stopping finish. But here came the “Comeback Cats.” Cameron Mills’ three-pointer with 2:15 remaining gave Kentucky its first lead of the game at 80-79. The game was tied at 81-81 with 39.4 seconds left when Scott Padgett swished the game-winning three-pointer. Padgett turning and retreating up court with both arms lifted high is the UK-Duke NCAA memory that most Cat fans cling to.

OVERTIME THRILLER: Continuing its ‘Comeback Cats’ theme, UK fell behind Stanford 37-32 at halftime of the 1998 Final Four game at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, before mounting a furious comeback. UK forced overtime at 73-73 and and won the game 86-85. The game featured one of the most courageous efforts in tourney play as eventual MVP Jeff Sheppard, nursing a severe ankle sprain, scored 27 points and did not miss a single field goal attempt in the second half and overtime. Nazr Mohammed added 18 points, 17 of those coming during the second half rally.

TUBBY'S TIME: New coach Tubby Smith faced a monumental challenge in the 1998 season when asked to replace Rick Pitino, the coach who had lifted UK from the depths of probation and had come within overtime of winning back-to-back NCAA titles. But here was Smith, magically guiding Kentucky to one come-from-behind victory after another, saving one of the best for last in the title game. Kentucky trailed Utah 41-31 at halftime. The cold truth: No team had ever come back from a double-digit deficit to win the NCAA title. Until now. With a defense that limited Utah to just four field goals over the final 16 minutes, UK fashioned a 21-point swing by going from 12 down early in the second half to win by nine, 78-69. Scott Padgett, Jeff Sheppard, Nazr Mohammed and Heshimu Evans all reached double figures scoring.

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