LEXINGTON, Ky. — Walter McCarty knows how to win at Rupp Arena.
In his four years as a Kentucky player, McCarty totaled a 54-2 record in the building. As a head coach, he is now 1-0 after leading Evansville to a shocking upset of No. 1 Kentucky, 67-64, as a 25-point underdog Tuesday.
“This is at the top,” McCarty said after the win. “To be able to come back home, play against the No. 1 team in the country and be able to perform the way we did, I don’t know if anything matches this other than winning a national championship from a basketball standpoint. It’s awesome man.”
McCarty’s final season at Kentucky featured a dominant run to the 1996 national championship, but his most memorable moment as a Wildcat might have come when he hit the 3-pointer that capped a 31-point comeback against LSU in 1994.
Even that highlight might have been more probable than Evansville’s win Tuesday.
Kentucky had not lost a home game to a team outside the Power 5 conferences since Nov. 14, 2008, one year before John Calipari was hired as coach. Evansville shot just 38.3% from the field in the upset, dropping Calipari’s UK teams to 189-17 when holding opponents under 40%.
The victory snapped a 52-game winning streak for Kentucky against unranked opponents in Rupp Arena.
Evansville was ready to celebrate after upsetting No. 1 Kentucky pic.twitter.com/woB0vjmR4G— ESPN (@espn) November 13, 2019
“I’ve done this 35 years and stuff like this happens,” Calipari said. “You want to grow from it, you want to learn from it. We may look back in a couple weeks and say, ‘This is the greatest thing that ever happened to this team.’ We also may look back in a couple weeks and say, ‘What in the heck? They’re not changing.’”
Kentucky’s reign as the Associated Press No. 1 team, and No. 2 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, lasted just one game.
Seven days after beating then-No. 1 Michigan State in the Champions Classic to open the season, Kentucky lost to a team from the Missouri Valley Conference for the first time since 1965.
Perhaps most concerning for Calipari’s team was much of the progress made against Michigan State and a subsequent blowout of Eastern Kentucky disappeared against the Purple Aces.
At his preseason media day news conference, Calipari wondered aloud if this team was physical enough to reach its lofty goals. The play of junior forward Nick Richards through two games and a seemingly-ahead-of-schedule team in defensive intensity had quieted those concerns.
But after watching Evansville outrebound Kentucky 38-35 and grab two offensive rebounds after Kentucky cut the lead to three with 3:47 remaining, Calipari was left to return to his original concern.
“I said it from Day 1, the whole key to this will be toughness,” Calipari said. “Toughness doesn’t mean pushing and shoving. Toughness means before I catch the ball I’m working. Before a shot hits the rim — before it hits the rim — I’m moving to go rebound. If I’m getting screened, I’m fighting that screen because I’m tough. And I’m not trying to fight it early to get beat on a back-door (cut).”
Depth concerns have limited Kentucky’s ability to hold physical practices over the last month.
Sophomore forward EJ Montgomery missed a second consecutive game with an ankle injury. Sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans, who turned in one of his worst games as a Wildcat with three points on 1-of-8 shooting and four turnovers, has been limited by a leg injury, leading Calipari to ponder whether they should “shut it down completely.” Freshman wing Dontaie Allen has yet to practice as he works his way back from a torn ACL.
With only seven or eight healthy scholarship players, Calipari said he has been forced to alter his normal practice routine. McCarty pointed to Evansville’s pace of play and depth as key factors in the upset.
“I think they just played with energy for 40 minutes,” graduate student forward Nate Sestina said of Evansville. “They had guys who wanted to win and wanted to play hard and wanted to play for 40 minutes. If a guy got tired, they were able to sub somebody else in.”
Kentucky need not look far into the past for an example of how to bounce back from an early-season embarrassing loss.
A year ago, the Wildcats were demolished by 34 points in the season opener versus Duke, but that game was played against a consensus top-five team that featured three top-10 NBA draft picks. Evansville’s roster includes one top-50-ranked recruit.
Last season’s Kentucky team frequently pointed to the Duke embarrassment as being key in it rounding into the form that saw it earn an NCAA Tournament No. 2 seed and finish an overtime short of the Final Four. Perhaps Evansville can be that talisman for the current Wildcats.
“That’s what we’re looking for,” sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley said. “Just like Duke last year kind of smacked us in the face, woke us up, hopefully we can kind of use this as a learning lesson as well to keep moving forward and keep getting better.”
Calipari has built his reputation at Kentucky by coaching his young teams through early season struggles to reach their peak by March. None of his previous Kentucky squads had lost a home game to an unranked foe though, let alone one paid $90,000 to play the game.
“If we play like we did today we’ll lose more than one,” Calipari said. “If you’re not tougher than the other team, and you’re this young, and we’re trying to play eight guys right now because of injury, you better fight like heck.”
On Tuesday, McCarty’s Evansville team was the one that met that standard, just like McCarty so often did as a Kentucky player.
As he soaked in the moment of the biggest win in Evansville’s time as a Division I program, McCarty remembered a moment during the 1996 Final Four when he was talking to Kentucky coach Rick Pitino and assistant Jim O’Brien.
“I’m getting on the bus, and I look right at Jim O’Brien and Coach P and said, ‘Today is a great day to be a Wildcat,’” McCarty said. “Today at practice I told my guys, ‘Today is a great day to be a Purple Ace. Let’s go do it.’”
Tuesday was a bad day to be a Wildcat. Now Calipari and company have to find a way to flip the script again.
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