Before I begin, let’s start with the disclaimer that I was born in 1986 and my basketball memory starts in 1992. That eliminates the 101-100 shootout win over Alabama in 1979 and Kenny Walker’s buzzer beater against Auburn in 1984. I am aware of these games’ existence, but I have never seen them, so they don’t make the cut for the list.
With that in mind, let’s begin.
10. 2003: Kentucky 64, Mississippi State 57
There weren’t a lot of close games for the SEC’s last perfect team. The Bulldogs made us sweat twice. This one was much tougher than the one in Rupp, which saw the Cats pull away. As always in 2003, Kentucky played fantastic defense. Noted UK killer Mario Austin had an absolutely terrible game, being totally outplayed by Marquis Estill. Late in the game, Austin had a chance to put MSU in the lead from the free throw line and missed badly both times. Chuck Hayes sealed the game from the line in an extremely physical SEC final. In a move that has never sat well with me, Tubby Smith didn’t let the team cut down the nets, under the premise that the Final Four was also in the Superdome and those were the nets we wanted to cut down. Well, you always cut the nets down.
9. 1995: Kentucky 86, Florida 72
Our first game of the 1995 tournament was a late evening game in the Georgia Dome. The Florida game was in the middle of the afternoon. There is a considerable difference in lighting between afternoon and early evening in the Georgia Dome, and it showed in the level of play. A desperate Florida team played basket for basket with Kentucky for about 12 minutes. Subs Antoine Walker, Chris Harrison and Mark Pope sparked a blistering run that blew the game open. All three hit multiple threes during the run and turned a close defensive struggle into a rout. Most importantly, it allowed the stars to align for a game that will appear much later on the list.
8. 2001: Kentucky 87, Arkansas 78
This game got Kentucky one of the most ridiculous 2 seeds ever handed out by the committee. Arkansas won a very frustrating game against UK the week before and had blown them out in the tournament in 2000. This particular bunch of UK players just had a hard time beating Joe Johnson. The Razorbacks came out on fire, making seemingly every shot and getting every call. One play had my dad so angry I left the room. Cliff Hawkins got a steal, then his feet got tangled up with an Arkansas player and Hawkins was called for the foul. If I had to guess, Doug Shows blew the whistle. Keith Bogans hit a couple of buckets at the end of the half to cut the deficit to ten points, then he and Tayshaun Prince, along with a great effort from the late Marvin Stone, just wore down Arkansas in the second half. It was an extremely entertaining game that was a moment of toughness for a relatively soft UK team.
7. 1992: Kentucky 80, Alabama 54
If any game in the early Pitino era ever screamed out, “Kentucky is BACK!” it was this one. Alabama was an awfully good team with three NBA players, and they had beaten an Arkansas team that this particular UK team could not have beaten if they had played 20 times. But this group just owned Alabama. Even though they were just over 12 hours removed from beating Arkansas, Bama used a flurry of threes by James Robinson to take the lead at the half, and just like that, it was over. Jamal Mashburn was the best player on the floor and nobody on Alabama’s team could touch him. Uncanny Alabama killer Gimel Martinez had another great game against Robert Horry, including a crushing slam in the final seconds. John Pelphrey cut down the net and waved it around, dare I say as ecstatic as any UK player has ever been in any given moment. It felt great. And I’m convinced that SEC Tournament switched Kentucky and Arkansas’s places in the big dance. Ironically, I believe that UK would have made it to the Final Four from Arkansas’s position in the bracket, but the four seniors never would have become the Unforgettables.
6. 2004: Kentucky 69, Georgia 60
Sometimes it’s your own personal experience that makes a game special. In this case, it was my senior year of high school, and the place came to a screeching halt when this game began at 1:00 on Friday. Georgia had Kentucky’s number that year. In fact, they only had good games against Kentucky. And just like the first two games, this game was incredibly physical and very close. Cliff Hawkins had his best offensive game ever at UK, but Rashad Wright kept up with him shot for shot. Were it not for poor Georgia free throw shooting, it might not have come to this, but the drama came in the final five minutes. I had to leave school a few minutes early to get to an appointment, so I left the building with Kentucky up by a point and Georgia at the free throw line for a 1-and-1 after a timeout. I had to listen to this drama on the radio. Georgia missed. Chuck Hayes rebounded and launched an outlet pass to Erik Daniels for a layup. Cats by three. Wright immediately came down the court and buried a contested three. Tie game. Hawkins did the exact same thing. Cats by three. Wright tried another one, but he missed. After a Kentucky miss, Kelenna Azubuike got an offensive rebound in traffic and scored, plus the foul. Cats by six. Wright missed a driving shot in the lane, Azubuike drove baseline and threw down a ferocious dunk. Ballgame. Are you feeling this? It was beyond intense, and I think being unable to see it added to the intensity of it for me.
5. 2005: Kentucky 79, LSU 78
What a back and forth struggle this was. LSU dominated early thanks to Antonio Hudson going nuts from three. Kentucky came back thanks to Joe Crawford, who used a rare stint of playing time to score 14 big points. Crawford’s play, along with the second half shooting of Patrick Sparks, helped UK take a seven-point lead into the final 90 seconds. But missed free throws and two Darrel Mitchell threes cut the lead to one with less than ten seconds left. Randolph Morris made one of two free throws (Hayes, Azubuike and Sparks on the floor and we get the ball to Morris to shoot FT’s? LSU must have been playing great defense) to make it 70-68. Brandon Bass took matters into his own hands and made one of the toughest clutch shots you’ll ever see, using about a dozen friendly bounces on the rim to send it to overtime. LSU jumped out in the overtime thanks to Mitchell and Bass, and with less than two minutes to go, they led by five. Sparks shook loose for a three. LSU by 2. After Glen Davis missed a couple of clutch free throws, Azubuike drew a foul, made the first shot and missed the second. But Hayes rebounded, and after a timeout, Hayes got free from Davis for a driving score. LSU had a chance, but Tack Minor had the ball, and if you remember Tack Minor, you knew he wasn’t getting off the shot. Hayes got the rebound, slammed the ball down and popped his jersey. He had better games in his career, but that was the ultimate Chuck Hayes moment.
4. 1993: Kentucky 92, Arkansas 81
SPOILER: Three of my top four games are Arkansas games from the mid-90s. Shocker, isn’t it? My favorite UK team ever, by a gift from the basketball gods, got to play the 1993 SEC Tournament in Rupp Arena. Arkansas fans were pretty cocky by this point, as Kentucky hadn’t really come close to beating them in either of their two meetings since they joined the lead. Jamal Mashburn single-handedly killed the buzz of the Razorback fans. Without going into too much detail, the good guys led 17-0, then 21-2, then 24-4. Mashburn was on fire in a way you rarely see a player in a big game against a good team. After one Arkansas miss, Mashburn caught an outlet pass that was going to lead him out of bounds, only he made the catch and threw a touch pass behind his back to Rodney Dent for a huge dunk. This play made a cameraman fall over on the sideline like you see people do on the And1 Tour. Amazingly, Arkansas came back and cut the lead to two in the final minutes, but Mashburn and Travis Ford took over during winning time to produce the 11-point margin.
3. 1994: Kentucky 90, Arkansas 78
Arkansas was ranked #1 in the country and looked unbeatable. The only way Kentucky was going to beat them was to go crazy from three. In the loss at Rupp in February, they were ice cold. In front of a pro-Arkansas crowd in Memphis, they were on fire. They hit ten threes in the first half alone, but Scotty Thurman and Alex Dillard bombed away for the Razorbacks and despite playing a nearly flawless half of basketball, UK only led by 7. Arkansas switched up to a 2-3 zone in the second half and cut the lead to three, but eventually, the insane shooting destroyed the zone for six more threes in the half. Travis Ford hit five. Jeff Brassow hit four. Rod Rhodes came back from a suspension to hit all three shots and all seven free throws. Five players scored between 12 and 16 points. It was as complete and improbable a win as I have ever seen, because that 1994 team had hit the wall and Arkansas was such a terrible matchup for them.
2. 1993: Kentucky 101, Tennessee 40
They cheated us in Knoxville. I know we played like garbage, but we took the lead in winning time and they cheated us. Allan Houston did step across the free throw line before his shot hit the rim. That is a lane violation. Whatever Rick Pitino had in the speech archive to motivate the players for this game needs to be bottled. Switzerland could drop its neutrality, invade and conquer every one of its neighbors if it were as motivated as Kentucky was to destroy Tennessee. It was 14-0. Then it was 41-17. Then it was 101-40. That’s how much of a blur the game was. Kentucky has 19 steals. Jared Prickett had seven of them. Seven steals is an amazing statistic. Todd Svoboda outscored Allan Houston. This is what I call basketball karma. It was the single most vicious decimation of an opponent I have ever seen in basketball. But it wasn’t the best game.
1. 1995: Kentucky 95, Arkansas 93
What else could it be? Both teams were on top of their games. Arkansas used 40 minutes of hell and blistering shooting from Scotty Thurman to jump out to a 35-16 lead. Antoine Walker and Anthony Epps came off the bench to chip into the lead and cut it to six by halftime. Walker and Walter McCarty completed the comeback with some clutch offensive rebounding and scoring. Mark Pope tied the game at the line, then Walker stole an errant pass to set up a final play. Rod Rhodes drove to the rack, drew a foul and clanged both free throws. This was Pitino’s fault for not playing Rhodes during the final eight minutes and change, until that possession. Arkansas, given a second wind by the missed free throws, jumped all over UK in overtime for a 91-82 lead. Kentucky chipped away again, and it helped that Arkansas only made two of their final six free throws. With Corliss Williamson on the bench with his fifth foul, Arkansas lost their offensive flow. Walker got a quick score, then stole the ball and passed to Epps, whose free throws put Kentucky up for the first time since it was 2-0. Thurman missed a long bomb at the end and one more free throw by Tony Delk put the finishing touches on the best SEC Tournament game that will ever be played. Before the Connecticut/Syracuse six-overtime game from last season, this was the best conference tournament game ever in my eyes, and it probably would have been even if Arkansas had won.
Here’s to a great 2010 SEC Tournament. Go Big Blue!