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Here is an excerpt from the book on the 2009-2010 Kentucky Wildcats --- One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats, which is now available on Amazon for purchase!!!
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This excerpt comes from early in the season, as the nation was still getting to know John Calipari, John Wall and the rest of the young Wildcats. The team had just come off their first marquee victory of the season, a home win against defending national champion North Carolina, but still questions persisted. Remember, this was still Calipari’s first year, long before Kentucky was routinely ranked No. 1 in the country, and expected to be a perennial National Championship contender. So entering their next game, the college basketball world wondered: Could the Wildcats pull off another big win, this time away from Rupp Arena? And after the hype of that huge North Carolina win, could they back it up with another strong performance?
America got their answer in Kentucky’s next game, when they faced off against No. 14 ranked UConn at Madison Square Garden.
As the excerpt below explains, Kentucky was ready to answer everyone’s questions. And John Wall was ready to become college basketball’s biggest star:
The hype was officially starting to build in Kentucky, but unfortunately there was no time to let up, and no easy next opponent to be beat up on while savoring the North Carolina victory. The Wildcats’ next game was against another national powerhouse, and it would come on the biggest stage in basketball.
No literally, it came on the biggest stage in basketball.
The game was against the No. 14 ranked UConn Huskies, a school that had a National Championship pedigree, and like North Carolina, was coming off a Final Four berth the season before. The game itself would be played at Madison Square Garden, “The World’s Most Famous Arena” and broadcast on ESPN. ESPN’s top college basketball broadcasting team of Dan Shulman and Dick Vitale were on the call, only adding to the hype.
But even despite the hype, the Wildcats kept things pretty cool once they got to New York. It was the Christmas season and the entire city was in a festive move; why wouldn’t the Wildcats be festive as well? The players spent their free time shopping and walking around the city, and if you hadn’t known any better, you could have never guessed that a huge, potentially season-altering game awaited the Wildcats.
The team was definitely relaxed, but even amongst a group of easy-going guys, there was one player who took it to an extreme: DeMarcus Cousins. As Kentucky fans were quickly learning, while “Boogie” might have been the biggest guy on the team, he also had the most playful nature.
And it was on full display in New York.
“We walked around in the city together as a team,” former Sports Information Director, and current Deputy Director of Athletics, DeWayne Peevy said. “We were doing stuff for our coaches TV show and DeMarcus Cousins had a microphone, and he’s asking fans ‘Do you know who John Calipari is? Do you know who John Wall is? Have you ever heard of Kentucky basketball?’ This is the middle of the year, this is December, and there are a lot of people who didn’t know who John Calipari or John Wall was…. There were plenty of Kentucky fans around, but when you ran into random people, it was one of the funniest skits ever.”
It was indeed funny, but as much fun as the players were having, the tone changed later that night. The Wildcats were still in New York City, still hanging out and still keeping loose, but as Kentucky fans began to trickle into town, the team began to realize the magnitude of the game.
“The night before we were in Times Square just walking around,” senior guard Ramon Harris said. “The hotel was right around the corner from Times Square. All these people were like, ‘Oh, we just saw UConn. They’re talking a lot of trash.’ They were coming up to us and saying like ‘We just saw Kemba Walker and he said they’re gonna beat your ass.’”
Did UConn’s players actually say any of that? Who knows?
But it certainly caught the player’s attention.
“We have people in the streets trying to hype it up,” Harris said. “Whether they (UConn) said it or not, that’s when it really hit us like ‘Oh, this is a real game.’”
If Kentucky’s players didn’t know it at that point, they found out the following day, as the team began to leave for the arena. Thousands of fans (yes thousands) greeted the team outside the hotel; the players had to walk through a virtual tunnel of royal blue just to get to their bus. By that point, it was impossible to ignore how important this game was for both Kentucky’s fans, and the program.
It had been a long time since the Wildcats had been on a stage like this. For so long they’d been on the fringes of the college basketball discussion; good but never great under Tubby Smith before turning into a punch-line under Billy Gillispie. For a team which had spent most of the 1990’s as one of the “it” programs in college basketball, the Wildcats had taken on the worst kind of national profile: For the previous decade they were at times, irrelevant.
Which is exactly why this game meant so much. For the first time in a long time ‘Cats fans had the chance to travel with friends and family and build a mini-vacation around ‘Cats basketball. And not just ‘Cats basketball really, but this kind of ‘Cats basketball, and a matchup of this magnitude: A huge game, on a huge stage, with a legitimately good opponent. And unlike in previous years, they wouldn’t be an underdog, hoping to keep things close, but instead a heavyweight ready and willing to trade blows with another championship-caliber prizefighter.
Add in the fact that it was a primetime game, when no other major sporting events on TV and the game became even more important. As much as North Carolina was a statement game, this one held even more weight; North Carolina was played on a Saturday afternoon on the same day that college football would later take center stage. But against UConn, it was Kentucky who was on center stage. If they were able to get a win, no one could deny the Wildcats’ arrival on the national landscape.
And it was that as a background, which explains why this game meant so damn much to Kentucky fans.
Boy were they ready.
“Kentucky plays in New York every year (before and since) and I’ve been there every year, and it was never like that,” Kentucky Sports Radio’s Matt Jones said. “It was like every Kentucky fan had to be at that game, because it was the first like, “here we are” basketball game. It was insane. It was insane.”
The insanity only grew once the team arrived at the arena. UConn is a fan-base which prides itself on owning Madison Square Garden, and bringing more fans than the opponent every time they play in the ‘World’s Most Famous Arena.’ But on this night, there was no denying Kentucky’s presence. UK fans were everywhere; in the upper bowl and lower bowl, seemingly spilling out of their seats into the aisles. Heck Wildcats fans drowned out everyone else before the game even began; the fans who got to Madison Square Garden early chanted “Go Big Blue!” while Georgia and St. John’s were still on the court for the evening’s first game.
Once the game did tip off, well, the Wildcats gave their fans plenty to cheer about. Patrick Patterson hit a quick bucket just seconds in to give Kentucky an early lead, and a John Wall steal led to an Eric Bledsoe layup which gave the Wildcats a quick 4-0 lead. Just 29 seconds into the game, UConn coach Jim Calhoun called a timeout, trying to slow down his opponent’s momentum.
It didn’t work.
Even after the timeout, there was no slowing Kentucky. From there, Wall got another bucket. Then another. Patterson hit a two-point jumper, before Wall got another layup on a fast-break.
Before anyone knew what happened, the score was 12-0 as Madison Square Garden went up in a frenzy. UConn called another timeout, but there was no quieting Kentucky’s fans. They yelled and screamed and hugged each other, and after that, they did it all over again.
The scene was indescribable. But as someone who was in the building that night, I did my best, describing the scene this way,in an article I wrote the day after the game.
It was honestly like watching a bad crowd shot from a sports movie, everyone erupting in unison, almost like a director was yelling, “And action!” Only it was real life.
But as happy as Wildcats’ fans were, the excitement died down just a few minutes later. Out of the timeout UConn began to battle. Gavin Edwards hit a quick, two-point jumper, followed by a Jerome Dyson layup. In the same way that no one was quite sure how Kentucky had jumped out to a 12-0 lead, UConn made an equally surprising run to even things up just a short time later. Even worse for Kentucky, their best player had to watch it all from the sidelines. John Wall picked up his second foul with eight minutes left in the first half and was forced to grab a seat next to Calipari.
“We started out on a 12-0 run,” John Wall remembered. “Then I got two fouls and Coach Cal was mad at me early in the game.”
Wall would have his chance to atone, although it didn’t happen right away. UConn had wrestled the lead back and was up 29-23 heading into halftime. From there, the two teams spent most of the second half battling back and forth. As the clock ticked into the final minutes, the game was at a standstill.
The good news was, this was nothing new for Kentucky; at that point, it seemed like just about every game the Wildcats played came down to the final few minutes. And when it did, the Wildcats had a game-plan for these exact moments: Get the ball to John Wall. This game was no different, and Wall was ready for the moment. He started things off with a spinning bank shot with just under four minutes left to play. Next, he took Kemba Walker off the dribble, before coming to a quick stop and hitting an 18-foot jumper.
Kentucky was doing what they always did, but unlike some of their earlier opponents, UConn didn’t back down, and seemed to have an answer for every move the Wildcats made. Despite getting nine points from Wall between the eight minute mark and the one minute mark in the game, Kentucky still trailed 61-60 when they got the ball back with a little more than 60 seconds to play. The Wildcats tried to move quickly but had little success; Darius Miller missed a three-pointer, before Ramon Harris’ put-back attempt was blocked out of bounds.
Kentucky got the ball back, and this time there was no messing around. They were going to get the ball to John Wall.
Kentucky inbounded the ball to Miller, while Wall stood at the top of the key (by that point UConn had switched the 6’9 Stanley Robinson onto Wall, since none of their guards could defend him); after a few seconds Miller got the ball to Wall, who dribbled down the clock until there was about 35 seconds to play. Wall then passed the ball quickly back to Miller, who grabbed it, and slowly took two dribbles to his right.
Then in a flash, it happened.
As soon as Miller put the ball on the floor, Wall bolted from right to left, and caught a pass from Miller; Miller then used his body to ever so slightly brush the defender, as soon as he gave up the ball to Wall. That brush created just enough space, and just enough separation for Wall, who attacked the hoop. He drove hard with his left hand and threw the ball off the glass, right as he was fouled by UConn’s Alex Oriahki.
The ball rolled through the hoop. Wall hit the ground and the crowd erupted. Kentucky had jumped ahead 62-61. Patterson immediately grabbed Wall and pulled him, as his teammates mobbed him from the side. Dick Vitale could be heard screaming “Oh, oh, oh!” on the TV, while Kentucky fans inside Madison Square Building made the building nearly inaudible.
Wall would proceed to make his free throw to give Kentucky a two point lead, and after a missed basket by UConn, Ramon Harris made one of two free throws to put the Wildcats up 64-61. With just a few seconds left, the Huskies had one last shot; Walker rushed the ball up, and after a quick scramble, passed it to Gavin Edwards who’s three clanged off the side of the rim. Kemba got the rebound, but by the time he got a shot off from the perimeter, the clock had sounded. DeMarcus Cousins caught the miss, and threw the ball up in the air.
Kentucky had won again. Final score, 64-61.
The Wildcats’ had won another thriller, but this one was different. For Kentucky fans, this victory really was everything they’d hoped for when John Calipari had agreed to be their head coach. Their team had just played a big-time opponent, on a big-time stage, and found a way to get a big-time win. It was away from Rupp Arena, so no one could argue that the Wildcats’ had the benefit of a home-court advantage, and it also came on a night where their highly-ranked opponent had played something close to their best game.
Simply put, this was it. This was the win everybody had been waiting for, hoping for… praying for. At this point, there was no true argument against Kentucky; it was impossible to say that they were too young or too immature, talented but a step behind the nation’s best. As it turned out they were the nation’s best; maybe not the absolute best team in college basketball, but they were in the short conversation of true title contenders.
It was a seminal moment for Kentucky basketball, a turning point for the whole program.
“It was the first time in a couple years that I felt like two big teams colliding in a really good match-up, and we came out ahead,” senior guard Mark Krebs said. ”I was like ‘This is why I came to Kentucky!’”
Beyond just the win though, the game was important for this reason: Kentucky was again one of the “it” programs in college basketball. It wasn’t just that they were good, or even a National Championship contender. It was that they were relevant; no real conversation about college basketball could be had without them. As Scott Padgett said when John Calipari was hired, Kentucky had stopped being Kentucky, they had stopped being on the tip of everyone’s tongues. But in just a few short months, Calipari had completely flipped that narrative. On a mid-week night in December when not much else was going on, Kentucky was the story in all of sports. They led Sportscenter. They were what everyone was talking about.
The game also provided another turning point in the season too. The UConn game was the game that John Wall became a star; not just a player to be enjoyed by Kentucky fans, but a player that everyone, even casual college basketball fans had an opinion on. Like his team, Wall was the talk of the sport.
And with good reason. Wall had the perfect blend of charisma and talent, not just a star… but a player with star power. Kentucky fans had seen it as early as Big Blue Madness. The rest of the world saw it that night.
“John Wall went off in that game,” Jones said. “There was a big sense of like, ‘Wow, we also have maybe the best player in the country.’”
That’s right, John Wall was indeed a star, and his team was now the talk of college basketball.
It was something new, something enjoyable, something refreshing for Kentucky basketball.
But it quickly became more of a challenge than anyone could’ve anticipated.