By LARRY VAUGHT
When Cameron Mills asked me to perhaps see if I could list my top 10 NCAA Tournament memories from 40 plus years of covering Kentucky basketball, I thought it would be easy.
Then I got started and it was not so easy because there have been so many memorable wins — and losses. That’s why as Kentucky gets ready to start another NCAA Tournament run, I decided to keep the positivity going. I’m going to list my top 10 memories of UK wins.
Certainly, that leaves out some memorable games — UK-Duke in 1992, the Dream Game in Knoxville — but there are still plenty of other great memories from wins.
So here they are (in chronological order and based solely on my opinion).
This was my first national championship game to cover and involved one of my all-time favorite UK teams. Plus, in the 94-88 win over Duke in the title game, Jack “Goose” Givens went off for 41 points. That’s still the best single game performance I’ve seen by a UK player in a NCAA game.
The national media made a big deal out of it being a “season of no fun” for Kentucky and coach Joe B. Hall since the Cats were expected to win the title. Hall didn’t help that perception the day before the final game in St. Louis when he said his team had not got to enjoy the season — something I am positive his players did not agree with.
Givens made 18 of 27 shots in that title game as Hall found a seam in the Duke defense and Givens wore the Blue Devils out. He had 16 of Kentucky’s final 18 points in the first half.
Rick Robey also had 20 points and 11 rebounds for UK. Then there was that thunderous dunk by James Lee that sealed the win and set off the UK celebration.
The Mideast Region title game in Dayton was a nail-biter before UK won 52-49. The Spartans had a freshman named Earvin “Magic” Johnson who had already made a big name for himself but he had only 6 points on 2-for-10 shooting and also made six turnovers.
The game’s star was Kyle Macy. He had 18 points and made 10 of 11 free throws. He had nine points in the final six minutes to help UK rally from a rare 31-24 deficit early in the second half and win despite its lowest scoring game of the season.
Givens had 14 points and Mike Phillips 10 to hand Magic Johnson his only loss in a season’s final game in four years. His high school senior season, college sophomore season and rookie NBA season his team won titles each time.
This first-round game in Knoxville was so memorable because it involved the most courageous coaching move I’ve seen by a Kentucky coach in NCAA.
The top-ranked Cats trailed No. 15 Florida State 39-32 at half in a game they were expected to romp to victory. Hall was furious with his team at halftime, so he benched starters Truman Claytor, Jack Givens and Rick Robey to start the second half.
At a team reunion in Lexington years later Hall admitted that he told assistant coach Dick Parsons as they were coming back on the floor that it better or work UK fans “won’t let us back” in Kentucky.
The move worked perfectly, though, as the backups energized UK and the starters returned to pull away for an 85-76 win. Claytor led the way with 16 points while Macy had 14, Mike Phillips 14, Robey 12, Givens 11 and Lee 10.
Coach Rick Pitino had what most considered the nation’s best team and felt this was the year the Cats should win it all. However, one of the early tests was against Wake Forest and star Tim Duncan. For most of the season, Duncan had been unstoppable.
Pitino had a week to prepare for the game and the Cats overwhelmed Wake Forest 83-63 in Minneapolis. Kentucky led 38-19 at halftime and was never threatened because Duncan was just 2-for-7 from the field and Wake Forest had 20 turnovers. UK double or triple teamed Duncan any time he had the ball. He finished with 14 points and 16 rebounds but was really a non-factor in the game.
Tony Delk went 9-for-13 from the field and led UK with 25 points. Point guard Anthony Epps had 12 points and six assists and Derek Anderson came off the bench to add 12 points, five assists and five rebounds.
After that win, I had no doubt UK was going to win the title and the Cats did.
This was another one of my favorite teams and Tubby Smith’s “Comeback Cats” just refused to lose. In the South Region final in St. Petersburg, Fla., Kentucky fell behind by 18 points but stormed back to win 86-84 and help ease the sting of UK’s loss to Duke in the 1992 classic in Philadelphia.
There were two huge shots in that game I won’t ever forget. First, Cameron Mills hit a 3-pointer with about two minutes left to give UK its first lead at 80-79. I’ve seen prints of Mills launching that shot all over the state.
With the score tied 80-80 and about 40 seconds to play, Scott Padgett hit another key 3-pointer for UK and that helped seal the win.
I remember center Jamal Magloire jumping on a press table to dance when the game ended. Coach Tubby Smith ran on the court and jumped around like a young boy with his players. Kentucky fans didn’t want to leave the arena.
Fan favorite Jeff Sheppard had 18 points and 11 rebounds. Point guard Wayne Turner had 16 points, eight assists and five rebounds along with being a defensive stopper in perhaps his best all-around game at UK. Padgett had 12 points and six rebounds.
No team had ever trailed by more than eight points at halftime and come back to win the national championship game. Or at least it had not happened until UK fell behind Utah by 10 points at halftime in San Antonio only to charge back and win 78-69 with a dominant second-half performance.
Remember this was a UK team that was booed by Big Blue fans in mid-February in Rupp Arena when it lost to Mississippi. But the Comeback Cats never wilted. Instead, Utah did as it managed just four field goals in the last 16 minutes and gave up the most points it had in any game all season.
Kentucky got outrebounded 39-24, the biggest margin ever for a winning team, but the Cats hit 15 of 17 free throws.
Padgett had 17 points and six rebounds while Sheppard had 16 points and four boards. Mills came off the bench to score 8.
I can still remember talking to then WHAS Radio sportscaster Tony Cruise at halftime and him saying he thought the Cats were done. I told him Tubby’s team had Utah right where it wanted and it turned out that way.
The Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 and the pick to win the championship and no one expected Kentucky, which needed a game-winning shot from Brandon Knight to beat Princeton in the first round, to win this regional semifinal matchup in Newark, N.J. However, the Cats did just that 62-60.
Knight hit a 15-foot shot with five seconds to play to beat Ohio State. What made that so impressive was that he was 2-for-9 from the field before making the last shot. Kentucky also won despite having Terrence Jones go 3-for-10 from the field. Ohio State was just 19 of 58 from the field.
DeAndre Liggins might have had his best game at Kentucky. He had 15 points, six rebounds, three assists and three blocked shots. He was 5-for-8 from the field and when the game ended he jumped on a table beside the playing floor and pounded his chest as Knight stood at midcourt celebrating.
Josh Harrellson had 17 points and 10 rebounds. He also threw a fastball off the face of Ohio State star Jared Sullinger trying to save a ball from going out of bounds that made all the national highlights.
This was not the national semifinal matchup that Kentucky fans wanted. The Cats were ranked No. 1 and the consensus pick to win the title while the Cards were the national Cinderella. All the pressure in New Orleans was on UK, not Louisville.
But the Cats prevailed 69-61 by limiting Louisville to 24 of 69 shooting from the field.
Anthony Davis, who had his picture on a New Orleans billboard, had 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots in a typical Player of the Year outing. The big key for Kentucky was Darius Miller had 13 points, including three 3-pointers, and was 4-for-4 at the foul line.
One could just sense the relief the Cats felt after this win and you knew the team was going to beat Kansas for the title — and it did.
Kentucky-Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan, Wisconsin
There’s no way for me to rate one win over any other during this magical tournament run. Kentucky was a No. 8 seed, and was lucky to get that the way it was blasted late in the season at South Carolina.
Yet the Cats survived a Wichita State miss at the buzzer to beat the Midwest Region No. 1 seed 78-76 in the second round. Next the Cats beat Louisville 74-69 thanks to a huge 3-pointer by Aaron Harrison in the final minute. That set the stage for a 75-72 win over Michigan when Harrison again drained a long 3-pointer over a Michigan defender just before time expired. Marcus Lee also came out of nowhere to fill in for injured Willie Cauley-Stein and had 10 points, eight rebounds and three b locks in 15 minutes in what still remains his best game at UK.
At the Final Four in Dallas, Harrison had more magic left as he hit a 3-pointer over Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser for a 74-73 win. Kentucky lost to UConn in the title game, but that spectacular stretch of games that produced four wins by a total of 11 points was unforgettable.
This game stands out to me because not only was a potential national title, but also a perfect season, was on the line. Notre Dame took shot after shot at UK before the Wildcats won the regional final 68-66 for their 38th straight win.
What made this game special was that UK trailed 61-56 with five minutes left, a situation this talented team seldom had faced. Instead of wilting, UK made its last nine shots and won the game when Andrew Harrison hit two free throws with six seconds left after he was fouled driving inside the lane.
Notre Dame had a shot blocked on its possession before Andrew Harrison scored and the Irish had an air ball on a desperation 3-point shot as time expired.
Karl Anthony-Towns took over late — much like he has done in the NBA as a rookie — and had 25 points, five rebounds, four assists, two steals and one block in his best overall game at UK. Devin Booker was 4-for-6 shooting and had 10 points. Kentucky was 25 of 47 from the field, 4 of 8 from 3-point range and 14 of 20 at the foul line but still had to rally to beat an inspired Notre Dame just to make the Final Four.