Fifteen years and a dozen days ago, Kentucky went on the road, fell behind by a bunch and then turned things around for a victory that became the bedrock of what would become a special season. That happened in Nashville.
We might have watched the same scene play out again, in Morgantown.
And the win over the West Virginia Mountaineers is even more impressive because back then, Vanderbilt was not ranked seventh in the country. And while Vandy’s Memorial Gym can be a buzzing, noisy, sweaty place to play, it’s not WVU Coliseum.
Kentucky played its way back into national relevance, if not the Top 25, with its unlikely 83-76 victory. And Kevin Knox played his way back into the hearts of UK fans who had to be wondering, “What’s the big deal with this guy?” as they watched a highly-touted but underachieving Knox , during other games, seem to melt away for long stretches.
Not on this night.
Knox poured in 34, including a clutch triple with 1:10 left that gave the Wildcats the lead for good. And that came just moments after James “Beetle” Bolden had dropped in a trey of his own, tying the game at 74.
That victory at Vandy in 2003 eventually became a blowout. The Wildcats were down early, 25-11 as the Commodores buried their first five straight three-pointers. At West Virginia, the Mountaineers couldn’t seem to miss in the first half, either, building a 17-point lead.
But back then, Tubby Smith pulled his team together at halftime and peeled himself some paint. One would think John Calipari did the same.
In Nashville, the Wildcats came at the ‘Dores with smothering defense on one end, efficient offense at the other. Same thing happened in Morgantown as the Cats held West Virgnia to 32.4 percent shooting in the second half, preventing the Mounties from setting up their headless chicken fullcourt pressure, the kind that had forced the youngsters from Lexington into 11 first-half turnovers.
And with all those missed WVU shots, there were rebounds aplenty and Kentucky grabbed more, whipping the home team on the boards, 49-34, including 28 on the offensive glass. Wenyen Gabriel grabbed nine in just 28 minutes; Jarred Vanderbilt, who couldn’t buy a bucket with a 20-year-old bitcoin, had eight and Knox had seven.
His outside shooting was the only thing that kept Kentucky remotely close in the first half, when he pumped in 18 for the Wildcats, who trailed 48-33. And he remained toasty-hot in the second half as Kentucky went on runs of 10-0 and 15-2, clawing back into what then became a see-saw affair.
Just as Jevon Carter carried the WVU offensive water in the first half, with 4-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc, Bolden kept the Mounties close in the second, finishing 5-of-10, including the biggie with 1:26 remaining.
Ten seconds later, Knox untied it when he splashed a trey, giving Kentucky a lead it never surrendered.
That win by Tubby’s ’03 team wasn’t the first but it was the catalyst in what would become a 26-game win streak that carried the Wildcats to a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Their season would end when Kentucky, with Keith Bogans playing on a heavily-damaged ankle, fell to Dwyane Wade and Marquette a game shy of the Final Four.
This is not to say this bunch will get that far. Maybe it will and it if does, we’ll all point to the night in Morgantown, when a band of callow freshmen (plus a couple of sophs) quieted a screaming crowd and pulled off a shocking upset.
Then they headed off on those country roads, back to Lexington, celebrating a night that at first seemed like it would be little more than fresh hell. It became, well, almost heaven.