Photograph by Victoria Graff
By LARRY VAUGHT
Evansville’s stunning 67-64 upset over No. 1 Kentucky in Rupp Arena Tuesday night was for coach Walter McCarty, a former Wildcat and starter on UK”s 1996 national championship team.
“This was for Coach, coming back to where he won a championship,” Evansville guard K.J. Riley, who had 18 points and four rebounds, said. “We did this for him. He took it very seriously. We knew he wanted to win, and we did everything in our power to win.”
Guard Sam Cunliffe, a Kansas transfer, came off the bench to score 17 points and grab six rebounds. His two late free throws iced the game.
“It’s amazing. You come to a school like this and you talk about doing things like this and making history and playing in front of these bright lights,” Cunliffe said. “We prepared the right way. We had our mind set in the right spot that we could actually do it.
“It is surreal. I could have never imagined this in my life. So, for our team to see the preparation we put in and see something great come from it is unbelievable.”
Evansville led most of the game and refused to wilt late when Kentucky did make a charge after playing uninspired most of the game. So I asked Riley and Cunliffe when they sensed they were going to win this game.
“I think when practice came around, we saw how we were preparing and we saw that we were doing something a little bit different. Our defensive scheme was a little bit different and we are going to see how they handled it,” Cunliffe said.
“That is obviously an amazing team. I just don’t think that they saw what we did to them. So, I think that gave us an advantage and for sure practice.”
Riley said the same thing that the belief started in practice.
“We had confidence before we even came in here. Coach told us, ‘We could win; this is a winnable game.’ Then we believed it from the jump,” Riley said. “We didn’t say, ‘Oh they have a lot of guys on the draft board.’ We had faith in ourselves, as a team, and the work we put in, and the preparation.”
I’m not quite sure Kentucky had the same belief that Evansville could win. The intensity/urgency was just missing most of the game indicating to me that UK underestimated the Aces, something UK players denied.
Give UK coach John Calipari credit for making no excuses about Evansville being the better team and playing a lot tougher than the Cats. He also credited McCarty, a second-year head coach, for outcoaching him.
For anyone who knows McCarty, his calm demeanor after the game was no surprise. No gloating. No praising himself. No criticizing Kentucky.
However, McCarty also didn’t act like the win or moment was too big for him or his team even though the Aces won only 11 games last year and were picked to finish only eighth in the Missouri Valley Conference this year.
“I mean we’ve got talent. We’ve got guys that can play and the good thing about all these guys, we all complement each other, and they love playing together. They’re a great group, so I don’t know how much this does for us,” the former Wildcat said.
“This is a great win for our program. For our team, we have to say if we come in here and stick together, good things can happen. That’s what we take from this. It felt like us against the world. If we just stick together, anything is possible.”
McCarty said he showed his team a clip of the movie “The Pursuit of Happiness” where actor Will Smith said, “Don’t let anyone tell you, you can’t succeed.”
His players obviously listened.
“No one expected us to come here and play the way we did,” McCarty said.
Kentucky better learn to not let that happen again or this won’t be the only time the Cats lose a non-conference game in Rupp Arena this year, normally a no-no for Calipari’s teams.
Maybe the Cats can also learn a lesson from what McCarty told his team after its biggest win.
“He told us just be humble. It’s a great team, a great learning experience. We are going to continue to get better. Do not treat it differently as another game, as another win. Be humble,” Riley said.
Could be that’s a lesson UK didn’t learn after beating then No. 1 Michigan State a week earlier because the Cats certainly treated this game differently and paid the price for doing that.