Photo by USA Today
Today in the Lexington Herald, there were two very different stories about UK basketball. One was by the dark Lord Tipton, who did his normal “what can I say negative about UK basketball” column (a trademark of Senor Tip) and the other was an interesting list of the greatest “clutch” shots in UK history by Mark Story. I thought Story, who always does a stellar job of coming up with good offseason topics, did a strong job of coming up with the best clutch shots in UK lore and it was readily apparent that two facts are true about Wildcat history in this area. First, we haven’t been blessed with a ton of “clutch” game-winners in big games…for the most part, our best shots have come in games that we went on to lose, adding a dose of sadness to otherwise classic moments. And second, we just witnessed three of the best all-time, back to back to back in the same tournament BY THE SAME PLAYER. That is simply bizarre and amazing.
So with some apologies to Mr. Story, I have come up with my own list of the TEN MOST CLUTCH SHOTS IN UK HISTORY. The list includes eight shots that are the same as Story’s but in a different order. I left off his two Vernon Hatton vs Temple shots from 1958 for different reasons. His Final Four shot was a wide-open layup with 17 seconds left…not the difficulty or time crunch of some of the others…and the other was a regular season game…those simply don’t mean as much as these tournament shots that touch our soul. So without further ado, my list:
10. Brandon Knight 2011 First Round vs Princeton:
Kentucky played terribly all game and in Calipari’s second year, the Ivy League team probably deserved the victory after a late run. But with the game tied with just seconds remaining, Knight beat his man off the dribble and hit a contested layup. Amazingly, Knight had been held scoreless all game up to that point and the win began an improbable Final Four run that helped continue the Calipari train in his second year.
9. Jim Master 1983 Elite Eight vs Louisville:
No game in UK history has ever been as hyped as the Cats-Cards in 1983 in Knoxville. Master hit a jumper at the buzzer to send the game to Overtime, causing a fury in the Bluegrass state like no other. But points are lost because UK went down in overtime in what may be the most painful UK loss of any ever for those just a generation older than I.
8. Aaron Harrison 2014 Sweet 16 vs Louisville:
This was probably the third most hyped UK game of all time (behind the 2012 Final Four tilt) and the Cats were outplayed throughout most of the game. At many times most of us gave up, but with 39 seconds left, Aaron hit a deep corner contested three to ensure bragging rights over our rival that will stick for a long time. One shot changed how we looked at the Harrison Twins, the 2014 team and for some nationally, Calipari in general. If he misses it, who knows what happens…he makes it and we had one of the most exciting runs ever.
7. Anthony Epps 1997 Title Game vs Arizona
Often overlooked for great shots (not by Story, who had it #2), but Anthony Epps’ might have been the most improbable of all. Down three, Arizona chooses not to foul and Epps takes one of the oddest shots in UK history, a double pump three-pointer that somehow swishes clean through the net. I still don’t know why or how he took it, but it went in…I can’t rate it as high as Story however because we lost in Overtime.
6. Patrick Sparks 2005 Elite Eight vs Michigan State
The game was epic, but this shot is higher than other Epps/Master because of how it went in. Looking for a three to tie, Izzo again doesn’t foul and after two heaves that weren’t close, the ball bounces out to Sparks who hits a shot that still defies the laws of physics. It bounced high off the rim twice and hung on the edge before it fell. I have never jumped higher after a make and never smiled broader than when he ran and told Billy Packer what was up after. The best moment of Sparks’ career and one that might be at the top of this list had they won the game.
5. Brandon Knight 2011 Sweet 16 vs Ohio State
I don’t remember a good UK team given less of a chance in a regional than these Cats were in 2011. But after escaping Princeton, Knight put a dagger through the #1 seeded Buckeyes with a runner with 5 seconds left that was as full of cajones as any you will see outside a Harrison named Aaron. The fact that it was done on a full court sprint and over the alleged great defender Aaron Craft, made it even sweeter, as did the jersey pop that followed right after.
4. Scott Padgett 1998 Elite Eight vs Duke:
This shot happened with more time left on the clock than most of the others (40 seconds), but it basically ensured a win that at the time, may have meant more to UK fans than any other. The three exorcised the Duke 1992 demons and set off a great celebration by Padgett that is still one of my favorite UK moments ever. No individual win makes me happier and a UK guy hitting the shot only helps its historic nature.
3. Aaron Harrison 2014 Elite Eight vs Michigan
From a time standpoint, the most clutch of all of Aaron’s shots. It was contested as closely as any shot you will ever see and I still don’t know how he got it off. But he did, it went in and this Kentucky team went to a Final Four that almost nobody believed possible. It was then we knew the run was a special type that we had never seen before…it only got better.
2. Sean Woods 1992 Elite Eight vs Duke:
I take a break from my theory of ranking shots in losing games lower for Woods’ epic heave vs Duke in 1992. Yes I know we lost, but because of Woods’ shot (and of course the one after), this is the almost certain choice by everyone for best college basketball game ever played. That means something. Woods’ heave was ridiculous, he was one of the least likely players to take the shot and the elation after will probably never be replicated. The pain that followed is the only reason this is #2…but it remains an integral part of the most special game this sport has ever produced.
1. Aaron Harrison 2014 Final Four vs Wisconsin
I have no idea how this shot went in…when it left his hand, it looked dead left and somehow mid air, it seemed to take a swing right and rattle in for a three that was as amazing as any I have ever seen. The fact that it came with UK down 2 (and thus losing if he missed) and was so DEEEEP and followed TWO OTHER GAME WINNERS BEFORE IT, makes it to me, the biggest shot in UK history. Obviously it is slightly more special if we cut down the nets, but still there has never been a bigger shot to win a bigger game since Kentucky basketball began over a century ago. It is a deserving #1.
One player, three of the top eight most clutch shots in Big Blue history…what a year.