At Cameron Mills Radio, the writers are all making lists of their Top 10 March Madness moments. As we have a wide range of ages (I admit it – I am the “senior” in this class and it isn’t even close!), our criteria were the moments must have occurred within each writer’s lifetime. So to our youngins on staff, the joke’s on you because I have way more material from which to choose!
A game deemed by many to be the greatest college basketball game ever played was incredible to watch. The #1 Blue Devils and the #2 Wildcats battled for 40 minutes with neither team ever taking control and ultimately it took an overtime period for the contest to be decided. We all know about “the shot” and “the stomp.” It was the beloved Unforgettables against the defending National Champions. It was Kentucky’s return to the national stage after the program was nearly torched to the ground by probation. This was when the BBN knew the Wildcats were back to their rightful place in the basketball world. No game ever made me cry more and the score, 104-103 will forever be etched in my mind. So why does this come in at #10? Because UK lost. After all, this list is my favorite moments, not top games.
It was Coach Cal’s second year at Kentucky. Having lost John Wall and Demarcus Cousins to the NBA Draft, the 2011 Cats were viewed by many as less talented. They were definitely viewed as the underdog in this matchup against overall #1 Ohio State. The Buckeyes had a balanced roster: strong guard play featuring Aaron Craft, a dominating inside presence with Jared Sullinger, a great collection of 3-point shooters, and experience. Kentucky had leftovers: Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins plus a couple of young guards in Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb. In a shocker, Harrellson played what might have been the game of his career as he handled Sullinger and the Cats eliminated the Buckeyes 62-60 and returned to the Final Four for the first time since 1998.
During the ’90s, it seemed a given that UK would face Utah in the NCAA Tournament and it was pretty much a certainty the Cats would send the Utes home without a chance at the title. However, in 1998 the basketball gods were kind to Utah as they were on the opposite of UK in the bracket draw. But Rick Majerus’ team had to feel some trepidation when they realized that, after finally advancing the final, they would once again face their tournament nemesis. When the teams headed to the locker rooms at halftime, Utah was leading by 10 points and seemed in control of the game. Any other year, the BBN would be on meltdown-alert status, wringing their hands in agony. But this was 1998. These were the Cats of destiny, or at least that’s what many fans believed after back-to-back double-digit comebacks in the Regional Finals and the National Semi-Finals. And so it was as The Comeback Cats defeated Utah 78-69 and brought banner #7 home to Lexington.
#7 – 1996 UK vs Syracuse – Championship Game
There were two things that stood out to me from this game. One, it was the first championship I witnessed as an adult and it brought tears to my eyes. Two, it was almost anti-climatic after the National Semi-Final game versus UMass (you’ll see more on that later). Perhaps Kentucky’s greatest team ever, the 1996 Wildcats had steamrolled almost every team in their path all season with 2 losses as the only marks against them. After avenging an early-season loss to UMass, the championship game seemed a mere formality to most of the BBN. There were some tense moments in the game, but The Unstoppables came through on the backs of Tony Delk (24 points), Antoine Walker (9 rebounds), and Anthony Epps (7 assists). For the first time in 18 years, the hardware returned to Lexington.
For reasons I’ve never understood, I think this is one of the best tournament games that nobody ever seems to mention. The Wildcats were fresh off of their come-from-behind win against Duke in the Regional Finals while Standford had defeated the tournament darling, Rhode Island in a thriller to reach the Final Four. The Cardinal had an excellent team and proved to be a formidable challenge and led the Cats by 5 at halftime. The 2nd half brought more of the same close play, but UK managed to erase the deficit and at the end of regulation, the teams were tied at 73 points each. Stanford’s Arthur Lee dropped 26 points on the Cats while big man Mark Madsen pulled in 16 rebounds. Ultimately, though the Cats prevailed in overtime 86-85 with Jeff Sheppard scoring a career-high 27 points.
This was the game that elevated me from being a fan who cheered for the Cats to one who loved the Cats unconditionally. I had listened to games on the radio with my father or grandfather my entire childhood but I do not recall ever having seen a game on television until the 1978 title game. My dad had told me all about the 4 National Championships from his youth and he had never imagined having to wait 20 years to see another banner come to Lexington. This was also when the tournament was played with 32 teams. Some have argued it was an easier time to win since you only had to play 4 games, but players from that era will tell you the opposite. Their first-round games were the equivalent of starting in the Sweet 16 round today. Either way, we know it’s very difficult to win the title and this was an especially stressful time for the Cats. Coach Joe B. Hall who had the unenviable task of replacing the legendary Adolph Rupp was “expected” to win the championship in 1978. A team that included Jack Givens, Rick Robey, Mike Phillips, and Kyle Macy? How could anything less than a championship be acceptable? This was also before the days of Coach K (Bill Foster was at the helm at the time). Of course, Kentucky emerged victoriously, 94-88 primarily due to Givens scoring 41 points. Just do yourself a favor — watch the whole game!
In 2014, Wichita State was pursuing a perfect season (the first team to ever be 35-0) when they had to meet 8-seed (greatly underrated, by the way) Kentucky. The Cats spoiled their perfect season and, while the game was one of the best of the tournament, many felt it was just wrong that it had to be played in the 2nd round (no, I will never refer to the play-in games as the 1st round). Fast forward to 2017 and once again, Wichita State and Kentucky are in the same bracket, this time with WSU being the team greatly underrated (10 seed) and once again, the teams had to play in the second round. And yes, once again, the game was an instant classic. In case you were wondering, once again the Cats sent the Shockers home, but what a game. Just watch the final 1:30 below. It might leave you breathless.
The lone regular-season loss for the 1996 Untouchables happened early in the season. The 2nd game to be exact. A very brash John Calipari coached his Minutemen to an upset victory over then-#1 Kentucky. UMass would continue on with their season undefeated until late February. The Cats also stormed through the rest of their season, making an adjustment at the point guard position, and remained perfect until the SEC Tournament Championship game (don’t we all agree that they “threw” that game?). In today’s world, the Final Four would be reseeded so #1 would face #4, but this was 1996 and the teams met in the National Semi-Final instead. While the Cats had a semi-comfortable 8-point lead at the half, UMass came roaring back with tremendous play by Edgar Padilla and Marcus Camby. Tony Delk’s 24 points, Antoine Walker’s 9 rebounds, and Anthony Epps’ 7 assists paved the way for a victory, but John Calipari also played a part, as he was assessed a technical foul for leaving the coach’s box (and he was no further out than Rick Pitino had been on several occasions). Gee, have you ever seen that happen to Coach Cal? The 81-74 final score didn’t begin to tell the story of how close the game was and the level of play made the championship game 2 nights later a bit of a letdown.
Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, and Marquis Teague (all NBA draft picks) facing off against the Jayhawks’ trio of draft picks (Tyshawn Taylor, Thomas Robinson, and Jeff Withey) set the stage for an epic game. The Cats, however, were ready to take this game from the opening tip and even though Davis remained scoreless in the first half. Kentucky led Kansas by 14 at the half and was poised to cut down the nets for UK’s 8th national title. Bill Self’s team did outscore the Cats in the 2nd half by 6 points but UK was just too strong and won the game 67-59. Self was later quoted as saying “We didn’t lose; we just ran out of time.” Indeed, Bill.
You may wonder why a Regional Final takes the top spot on my list. There are several reasons. First, it was the first time UK had faced Duke since the infamous 1992 game. It was also the first comeback game of the 1998 tournament with the Cats facing a 17-point deficit in the 2nd half. And it was one of the most beloved teams in UK’s history. They were, as Scott Padgett put it, “the left-behinds.” Gone were the stars of the Championship 1996 team and the runner-up 1997 team. Gone was Coach Rick Pitino, who had been replaced by former assistant Tubby Smith. Kentucky was given little-to-no chance of defeating the dirty Blue Devils. But they didn’t count on Cameron Mills hitting his memorable 3-point shots nor did they predict Heshimu Evans and Jeff Sheppard would both pull down 11 rebounds. They didn’t predict that Duke would run out of timeouts with more than 5 minutes remaining in the game, preventing them from slowing Kentucky’s momentum during their comeback.
Once again, a tournament game left me in tears but unlike #10 on my list of favorite moments, these tears were joyful. Had this been in the era of phone cameras, you would likely have seen a video of me online jumping up and down for a full 5 minutes screaming, “They did it! They did it! Christian Laettner can go eat dog food. The Cats did it!” I’m not sure why I thought Laettner should eat dog food, but I was told that was what I said. And honestly, I wouldn’t be made at all if he did eat dog food.
So, there you have it. My Top 10 favorite March Madness moments. I’m sure others will disagree with my picks and/or the order of the games, and that’s fine. But for me, this list is just perfect.
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