By LARRY VAUGHT
Maci Morris’ freshman year at the University of Kentucky was everything she “hoped for” and the coaching staff literally had to make her go home during breaks because the dorms closed.
However, the next year there was a “little bit of craziness” that led to six players transferring, one player being dismissed from the team, two assistant coaches resign, one assistant get fired and two recruits decommit during the 2015-16 season.
Reggie Hanson played two seasons at Kentucky for coach Eddie Sutton before the program imploded in 1988 and was placed on probation after the 1988-89 season. Hanson could have transferred and been eligible to play immediately.
Morris and Hanson played at Kentucky almost 30 years apart. Hanson came to UK from Pulaski County, Morris from Bell County. Both made the same decision to stay at UK rather than bail out on the Wildcats.
“My sophomore year we only had six players on scholarship,” Morris said. “We needed tryouts just to get players. But my sophomore year was my favorite year at UK. We had to push beyond what we knew we could do.
“We became sisters and got so close. We knew we had to give everything to be successful. We made the NCAA and won a game in the tournament after a lot of people counted us out going into the season.”
The defections took a huge tool on UK the next year and UK didn’t make the NCAA.
“People thought UK was going down the toilet pretty much,” Morris said. “I was not used to losing like we did. It was very hard on me. A lot of stuff was going on in the locker room. But my senior year we came back and made the NCAA and won a game. Now they are moving back in the right direction and I am really proud of the team.”
Hanson admits a lot was going through his mind during the NCAA investigation and he wasn’t sure immediately whether he would stay. His younger teammates could not transfer without sitting out a year. Hanson was the team’s only sophomore eligible to transfer and play immediately.
“I had to think about what I wanted to do,” Hanson said. “My goal, like every player, was to play in the NBA.To do that I needed TV exposure. I needed to play in the SEC Tournament and play in the NCAA Tournament. With probation, I lost all three things if I stayed at Kentucky.”
So why did he stay?
“I did make a commitment to Kentucky. I didn’t expect that kind of adversity but that is is part of life,” Hanson, who now lives in Tampa and works in the retail industry, said. “I had to think about sticking to my commitment and being part of turning the program around or bailing and being selfish and trying to accomplish individual goals.
“I stayed. I felt like I would feel a lot better if I stuck with the university and helped the team get back on its feet.”
His new coach, Rick Pitino, often said Hanson was his most important recruit because he helped hold the program together. Pitino’s first year UK won 14 games. The second year the Cats added Jamal Washburn and Gimel Martinez and won the SEC championship (the following year The Unforgettables lost to Duke in the NCAA Elite Eight).
“I accomplished a lot of things at UK that I am very proud of. Staying at Kentucky eventually helped me to come back to Kentucky and coach with Tubby (Smith). Staying at UK opened a lot of doors for me that I am very proud of.”
Morris feels the same way.
“My senior year was so much fun. We went to Italy (on a summer exhibition trip), went to the Virgin Islands (for a holiday tournament). We had a winning season,” she said. “The next chapter in my life will now be playing professionally in Italy starting sometime in August hopefully.
“I owe everything I have and everything I am today and the opportunity to go overseas to UK. UK has opened so many doors for me. I have met unbelievable people.”
Morris and Hanson both agreed that the UK fans were special. Hanson saw UK fans in Japan when he played and coached there.
“You guys are the best fans in the world and you don’t know how much mean to athletes,” Morris said at the recent Ohio UK Convention. “You guys really help us and make us want to win for you because you are always there supporting us. We are truly thankful to you guys. All I can say is thank you to UK and the fans for four wonderful years.”
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