There are only a few times a year you can watch a live sporting event that contains enough emotion and energy forceful enough to be inked inside of your brain forever.
Someone can go to 100 basketball games at Rupp Arena in their lifetime and experience this phenomenon only a handful of times; blowout wins, inferior opponents, and history of homecourt dominance diminish the likelihood of watching a classic game unfold in front of you.
But every now and then, a game comes along that you just know is going to come down to the wire. One filled with rivalries and superstars and premier coaches and passionate fans.
Especially the passionate fans.
The moment I walked into Rupp Arena just after the clock hit noon, I knew I was about to witness a special event.
The Big Blue Nation was at its best on Sunday.
Almost the entire lower level of Rupp Arena was filled to watch the No. 14 Kentucky Wildcats women’s basketball team take on in-state rival, the No. 7 Louisville Cardinals.
While the ‘Cats didn’t pull out the victory at the final buzzer, the drama that preceded it told a story for the ages.
Rhyne Howard scored her 26th point of the night to tie the game up at 64 with 2:12 remaining in the fourth quarter. She’d cooled down after a scorching hot first half that saw her pour in 20 points. But she’d now hit two shots in a row. The game was on the line. Everyone in the building knew she was going to finish the game for her ‘Cats, it was just a matter of how.
6-foot-4 Kylee Shook responded just 21 seconds later with a crowd-deafening three. It was her third make of the night on her fifth attempt. Coming into the night, Shook had only hit three 3s all season.
Yup, it was that kind of game.
But Sabrina Haines had a counter. While attempting a three from the corner, Haines was fouled by Jazmine Jones – three free throws coming.
Haines misses the first to the sound of reluctant moans. She’s a great free throw shooter and knows it. She’s been the first to admit she hasn’t been herself at the line this year. But great shooters – as Haines is – know how to stay calm under pressure.
She drills the next two.
UK – 66 UL – 67
1:33 left in the game.
Stacked on top of each other down hundreds of rows and in thousands of seats, Rupp Arena was louder than any game played inside of it this season. The Big Blue Nation put on the best performance of the day.
With 39 seconds left, Kentucky made an untimely mistake. Howard had thrown the ball out of bounds trying to dish it her teammate on the perimeter – her fifth of the night. Louisville ball.
What ensued was one of the Wildcats’ best defensive efforts of the game. Kentucky forced Dana Evans into a tough three-point shot with the shot clock running low. No good. Tatyana Wyatt snatches the rebound from nearby Cardinals.
Wyatt floats a pass to Howard with about 10 seconds left and the clock ticking fast. Coach Mitchell doesn’t call a timeout.
Howard slinks near the top of the key, swinging the ball back and forth between her palms. Just her, the basketball, and the defender stand in front of the hoop and a massive upset win. Every single person in the crowd is on their feet.
She crosses over, begins to drive right but stops to step back and fire. The shot is up and the only thing you can hear is the sound of the buzzer.
The shot misses. Lousiville prevails. Rupp finally breathes, but they’re more like sighs.
Everyone was waiting to explode in that moment. I’m still stuck thinking about what I would have seen if that shot went in.
Those are the moments you wish you could take a snapshot of every single face in the arena.
Oh mannnnnnn I wish the shot had went in…
This is what happens when tickets are more affordable and obtainable; when they are distributed to the die-hards. The fans of the BBN that will do anything and everything to watch their Wildcats play basketball in one of those new Rupp chairbacks. The ones that will gladly miss out on Sunday football. The ones that want to see the Red Team lose more than anything on they have written down on their Christmas list.
It was a chance for someone to attend their first game at Rupp. A chance to see a special team and a rare sophomore talent.
Half of the upper level was closed off and you wouldn’t have even noticed just from listening. It felt like the days when Rupp could stuff over 24,000 fans up to the freaking rafters. The arena is still great and it will always be a landmark of Lexington. There will undoubtedly be more games like this in the future. But the atmosphere that formed inside the second home of every member of the BBN on Sunday was different.
Head coach Matthew Mitchell had been campaigning for weeks to fill Rupp with as many fans as possible to watch his group of ladies take on the Cards. He made an appearence on KSR to spread the good word.
Social media was overflowing with information about how easy and cheap it was to get tickets. The Wildcats had even built a perfect 10-0 record and the No. 14 ranking in the country just to sprinkle on that extra hint of free-advertisement – demolishing teams by 40 and 50 points.
And wow, did it pay off.
So I wanted to give a big shoutout to the fans of the Big Blue Nation tonight. That game was the reason I grew up a Kentucky fan and why I have so many fantastic childhood memories inside that gym. You all were in peak fandom-mode tonight and I know coach Mitchell along with every player on the Wildcat roster appreciated it.
UK Hoops need more high-profile games in Rupp Arena.