March 10, 1989, there I sat with my head in my hands as I watched Frank Kornet, Barry Goheen and everyone’s favorite announcer Barry Booker, do their best Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Haste la vista, baby” to my beloved Kentucky Wildcats in the 1989 SEC Tournament by the tune of 77-63. To add salt to the wound the tournament was being played in Thompson Bugger Area and every Vol’s fan in attendance seemed to be sitting in my section. As the finally seconds ran off the clock I could but not think what was going to happen next and could it get any worse than having to watch Eddie “Krusty” Sutton coach the Cats.
Krusty at his best. “I promise it’s just mouthwash.”
“Rock bottom finally hits” – Kentucky’s Shame: March 19, 1989 – In the wake of an NCAA investigation, Eddie Sutton resigns as UK basketball coach. On May 19, 1989 the NCAA placed Kentucky ‘s basketball program on probation prompting the infamous Sports Illustrated cover.
Then a new sheriff came to town by the name of Slick Rick Pitino.
I remember thinking to myself how is this going to work out — I had watched him coach with the Knicks and loved his style but this was Kentucky not New York. I thought if we all could get by the culture shock then Rick had everything we needed — NBA experience, determination to succeed and an ego second to none. That leads to my “most memorable UK Regular Season basketball game and why.
Just the facts:
The Date: February 15, 1990
Location: Rupp Arena
I remember that there was no television that season for the Cats due to probation and I had to listen to the great Cawood Ledford to follow the games. My friend and I crammed into to his little bright yellow 1975 Fiat in my front yard to try and tune in the pregame show. The Tigers were heavy, heavy favorites over the Cats. The Cats had been a very pleasant surprise so far that year but no one gave them a chance against LSU. It was not that the Cats would lose I was just hopping that it would not be a Kansas repeat 150-95 defeat early in the season. LSU had been ranked in the top 10 off and on all season. Their roster was unbelievable and you thought how in the hello could Dale Brown lose a game with this team. They were lead by one of the best guards in the county, if not one of the best of all times in college basketball, Chris Jackson. The front court included Shaquille O’Neal and Stanley Roberts.
The Cats lineup include Reggie Hanson, their tallest player at 6’7”, Deron Feldhaus, John Pelphery, Derrick Miller, who was so skinny the Bill Keightley had to sew his uniform into his skin each game, and Sean Woods.
I remember that the crowd was so loud that it was even hard to just hear Cawood call the game. The Cats were smoking out of the gate. It was 41-18 with 6:24 left in the first half. Hot shooting by Miller and Feldhaus coupled with a pressing defense caused the Tigers to turn the ball over numerous times. Rupp Area was rocking.
In the second half Jackson was brilliant and you just held your breath ever time he had the ball in his hands. Even Cawood at times was speechless. Refusing to fold, the gallant Cats hung on for the electrifying 100-95 win. Ever UK player stood tall but none so more than “Coach is Richie going to play tonight” Farmer the legend from Clay County . His 6 pressure-packed free throws in the last 1:05 sealed the win for UK . Jackson finished with 41 (seemed like 141), Shaq 14 and Roberts with 13. Miller led the Cats with 29. Hanson (11 points and 12 rebounds) and Feldhaus (24 points and 10 rebounds) had double doubles. The taller Tiger still out rebounded the Cats 58-41. Pelphrey and Wood both chipped in 10 and 12 points a piece.
Pitino had more than delivered on his promise. The Cats again were exciting, played hard and were winning games. Even more their style of play put the fun back into it for Wildcat fans. The joy that had been missing for almost 2 years had returned with a bang. I was not longer holding my head in my hands but standing on my feet and walking proud. This game showed me that we were back!!
Hunter’s take: Cliff, nice work here. You did a good job of explaining the significance of the game not only from a personal standpoint, but from a program-defining-moment standpoint, and if there’s one thing I like it’s the opportunity to critique pieces using three-or-more-word hyphenated phrases, which you’ve allowed me to do. Thank you for that. This piece was a little more “in-the-box” than your first, and while it could have used a good proofread, it still did a nice job of taking me back to a game I only vaguely remember from my youth. I would have liked to see a little more humor, as that’s kind of our thing around here, but your work here is solid, making my job difficult as I’ve liked all the entries today. Good show.