My recent March Madness memories.
In my book there are five Kentucky’s NCAA tournament games in 2012, 2014 and 2015 that are stuck in my mind as I covered them personally as a sportswriter.
I’ll save the best memory for last, okay?
The other four memorable Big Dance games, in no particular order, are:
---UK’s classic 78-76 victory over Wichita State in 2014 NCAA tourney, in my opinion, ranks as one of the most surprising victories in school history. Remember the 10-loss Wildcats were the underdogs at No. 8 seed, and the unbeaten (and experienced) Shockers were a No. 1 seed?
“This was an Elite 8 game,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari. “The winner of this should have gone to the Final Four, that’s what this was.”
The Harrison twins – freshmen Andrew and Aaron – combined for 39 points to help the Wildcats to a thrilling two-point victory at St. Louis’ Scottrade Center.
Fortunately for the Big Blue Nation, Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet misfired a potential game-winning three-point basket at the end.
The dramatic victory took the Wildcats to Sweet Sixteen and then Elite Eight where they had Midwest Regional dates with rival Louisville and Michigan in Indianapolis. After defeating both clubs in close encounters, UK moved on to the Final Four in Arlington, Texas where it lost to UConn in the national finals, finishing the year with a 29-11 record.
---Kentucky’s 2015 national semifinal loss to Wisconsin 71-64 in Indianapolis. That was probably the strangest game-ending feeling that I have ever experienced. I guess the word “shock” was the best way to describe the odd moment after the Wildcats had failed to potentially become the first 40-0 team in college basketball history.
Shortly after that disappointing loss to the Badgers, Calipari said he was very proud of his Wildcats and their memorable joyful ride. “We all wanted to win those last two. These kids wanted to win it in the worst way,” he added. “But you have to give Wisconsin credit. They did to us what we have done to teams. I'm going to look at the tape. There's some things I probably should have done, a timeout here, I maybe should have changed up something. But we normally execute down the stretch, and we didn't. They did. They made plays down there and we didn't.”
Nevertheless, UK, led by All-American Karl-Anthony Towns, completed its stunning campaign with a glamorous mark of 38-1.
---UK’s high-scoring, high-intensity affair against rival Indiana in 2012 Sweet Sixteen showdown at the old Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Playing against then-coach Tom Crean and his No. 4-seed Hoosiers, the top-ranked Wildcats avenged their earlier 73-72 setback to IU by winning 102-90 with freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and sophomore Doron Lamb leading the attack with 24 and 21 points, respectively. While sitting on the press row behind the official scorer’s table, it was fun watching Coach Crean relentlessly walking back and forth on the sidelines, and yelling during the entire game.
---Kentucky’s 2012 Final Four showdown with former Wildcat boss Rick Pitino and his Louisville squad in New Orleans. The “Bluegrass” stakes were huge with both heated rivals battling in the Final Four for the right to play in a national championship game. Before a crowd of 73,361 at Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Wildcats had a 13-point advantage in early second half, but U of L refused to give up and tied the game at 49-all. The Cats, led by national player of the year Anthony Davis who had 18 points and 14 rebounds along with five blocks, eventually prevailed 69-61, advancing to the national finals.
And I remembered Pitino saying nice things about the Wildcats during the post-game press conference. “I will say this, that Anthony Davis is as fine a basketball player as there is,” said the U of L coach. “They have a great basketball team, one that I know John is really proud of. To tell you the truth, I haven't always liked some of the Kentucky teams. I'm not going to lie to you. But I really like this team a lot because of their attitude and the way they play.
“I'll certainly be rooting for them hard to bring the trophy back to Kentucky because I'm really impressed with them, not only as basketball players, the way they carry themselves, their attitude. They're a great group of guys, doing a tremendous job. Louisville will be rooting for Kentucky, which doesn't happen very often, to bring home that trophy to the state.”
---My favorite March Madness memory? That’s pretty obvious. It happened at the end of Calipari’s third season at Kentucky when he coached in the 2012 national championship game in Big Easy. And it was a very good night for the Big Blue faithful as the 38-2 Wildcats stopped Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks 67-59 for school’s eighth national title. It was awfully enjoyable to see Davis, who was chosen the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, and his jubilant teammates share the elevated stage with sportscaster Jim Nantz, Calipari and his wife Ellen, and UK president Eli Capilouto as they grabbed the championship trophy with the playing surface covered in confetti. (See an accompanying photo)
Without a question, it sure was a shiny moment.
After writing a game story during the late night/early morning and getting four hours of sleep, the 11-hour return trip to Kentucky with my family is definitely one of the nicer times that I have had in my life.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com Magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle.firstname.lastname@example.org.
NCAA Final Four Photo by Jamie H. Vaught