In the John Calipari Era, Kentucky has played in a lot of exciting games in the NCAA Tournament. As I constantly watch the news for updates on our current global situation, like I am sure everyone else, I have spent time thinking of what games have been the most exciting in March Madness during the Calipari Era in which the Cats ended up winning.
Here is my top-10 from top to bottom:
When a lot of UK fans look back at the 2015 NCAA Tournament, they immediately think about the Wisconsin loss, often forgetting the exciting win over the Irish that got them to the Final Four. The game was close the whole way, and Notre Dame even pulled out to a six-point lead with 5:22 left in the game before UK came roaring back eventually winning 68-66 after Andrew Harrison made two free throws with six seconds left to put the Cats ahead.
A big part of keeping UK in it was eventual NBA-star Karl Anthony-Towns, who scored a game-high 25 points in the game including 17 in the second half.
While this game was not exciting in terms of how close it was, this matchup was the last time we all saw that UK team absolutely dominate. Kentucky defeated West Virginia that night 78-39 folks. 78-39! The Mountaineers did not even eclipse 20 points until the 11:41 mark in the second half.
A lot of the fire that UK players got in preparation for the game was after West Virginia guard Daxter Miles Jr. assured the media that UK would be 36-1 after the game. After the game, Devin Booker made fun of the comment, tweeting out “36 and won” as the Cats just absolutely demolished West Virginia.
West Virginia Head Coach Bob Huggins said after the game, “That’s the best defensive team I think I’ve ever coached against.”
Kentucky coming into this game had already caught fire, as they faced off against two seed Michigan. The game was tight, as the score at half was 37-37, and again went right down to the wire. The Cats got production from many players, including then freshman forward Marcus Lee who totaled 10 points in the game. Then with just 10 seconds left in the matchup, the score was tied 72-72 and UK had the ball with a chance to win.
Freshman guard Aaron Harrison got the ball from way past the three-point line, dribbled with not much intention of driving, then launched a shot that at the moment seemed like not the greatest look with Michigan forward Caris Levert Jr. draped all over him. Harrison did not pay much mind to Levert, and nailed the shot 2.3 seconds to put UK up 75-72, sending much of the state of Kentucky into a frenzy. Michigan could not get a good look off at the buzzer, and UK earned a trip to the Final Four.
This game and the matchup against Michigan are similar for obvious reasons, but I put this one ahead for the fact that it was in the Final Four. Kentucky’s magical run had brought them to this point, and as a good battle with the Badgers was coming to the end, UK was down 73-71 with not much time to spare.
We all know who got the last laugh.
With 5.7 seconds, off a pass from the corner from Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison, twin-brother Aaron Harrison again rose to the occasion, nailing a three to put UK up 74-73. Wisconsin guard Traevon Jackson got a decent shot at the buzzer, but missed, and UK’s crazy run continued.
Aaron Harrison said after the game, “You can’t be scared to miss, and you want to be that guy that wants to take the big shots.” Wisconsin defender Josh Gasser was as in his face when he took the shot as Caris Levert Jr. of Michigan was when he hit one against the Wolverines, but Harrison stilled nailed it.
The Cats came into this game as underdogs, much like the round before against Wichita State that I will talk about further in the article, as Louisville came into the tournament with a team that had title-potential.
Kentucky trailed for a lot of the game, going down 13 points midway through the first half, and seven with four and a half minutes to play in the game. That did not phase the Cats though, as they surged to tie the game 66-66 after a 6-0 run with 2:11 left in the game.
Then after going back and forth, Kentucky gained control of the game as guard Aaron Harrison, off an outlet pass from freshman forward Julius Randle, nailed his first of three key shots in the tournament with 39 seconds left to put UK up 70-68. Kentucky then went on to win the game 74-69 continuing the magical run.
This game seemed coming in as much of a toss-up game as ever. UCLA had defeated UK at home earlier in that season, but by the time March rolled around, this was looked at as a coin-flip, although many saw UCLA as maybe the more talented team.
Kentucky came in, and kept a pretty good lead the whole game, eventually winning 86-75, proving that they were at another level at that point, and a team that could win a title. How that game between two of the top five teams in the country (much like the eventual Elite Eight matchup between UK and UNC) at that point that early in the tourney, is an odd concept, but UK won the game earning a spot in the Elite Eight.
A big part of that win, of course, was UK freshman guard De’Aaron Fox, who totaled 39 points and outplayed UCLA guard Lonzo Ball in what was considered the matchup of the night.
Ohio State came into this matchup as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament that season, including having a record of 34-2. UK came in as the four seed in that region, and underdogs to a really good Buckeye team.
UK senior center Josh Harrellson played absolutely out of his mind against then Buckeye-star Jared Sullinger, as he led the team in scoring with 17 points and rebounding with 10 boards. The game was back and forth the whole way, as UK matched Ohio State.
Eventually, as game came to the close, and the two teams were tied at 60 points, one of the two teams was going to have to win. UK freshman guard Brandon Knight, who struggled shooting in the game at that point going 2-9 from the field, brought the ball down the court, and with five seconds left, nailed a 15-foot jumpshot to put the Cats up two points. Ohio State missed a three on the other end at the buzzer, and UK won 62-60, earning a trip to the Elite Eight.
The first huge matchup in the 2014 tourney, this game is No. 3 on the list to me because it started the magical run that UK had that season in the NCAA Tournament.
Wichita State came into the game a one seed with the record of 35-0, and even though then they were in a mid-major conference (MVC), they were known as a great team capable of winning the title. Meanwhile, Kentucky came in an eight seed.
The game went back and forth the whole way. Players on both teams made plays on each end of the court. The biggest of those plays, arguably, was the James Young three-pointer out of a timeout that put the Cats up 73-71 in the closing minutes.
Wichita State never totally recovered, and UK won the game 78-76 after Shocker guard Fred Van Vleet missed a last second heave from just outside the three-point line that would have won the game. The upset was pulled off, and Kentucky then went on a crazy run that will forever be remembered.
This game was very nerve-racking for many Kentucky fans, knowing if they lost to the Cards as favorites and also lost the chance to win the title, that would be heartbreaking.
The game was in the control of the Cats most of the way, building up a double-digit lead early in the second half, before the Cards went on a 15-3 run to tie the game 49-49 with 9:10 to go in the game. After that however, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist nailed two big free throws, and Kentucky controlled the game the rest of the way, eventually winning 69-61.
Anthony Davis, who in the final seconds yelled to the crowd “This is my stage!”, led the team in scoring (18 points) and rebounding (14 boards) in that game, and put UK in the National Championship game.
Of course, for Kentucky fans, this game has to be at the top because this is the only time in the Calipari Era, as close as they have been, that UK has won the National Championship. Kentucky dominated pretty much the whole game, eventually winning 67-59, and without (as Calipari often mentions) Anthony Davis doing a whole lot of scoring. Davis instead grabbed a team-high 16 rebounds and a game-high six blocks while only scoring six total points.
Who led the game in scoring? Doron Lamb, who totaled 22 points that night. The former UK guard is often forgotten but was a key part of the early Calipari Era.
That is my list, and with each game I can still remember watching as they unfolded in exciting fashion. May we all still remember these great moments in this time of uncertainty.