Less than one year ago, John Calipari and his Kentucky Wildcats were hoisting up the NCAA championship trophy as the best team in all of the land. On Tuesday night, the Wildcats’ season mercifully came to a close in Moon Township, of all places, with the Robert Morris Colonials stunning the defending NCAA champs, 59-57.
After winning the opening tip with 7’0″ center Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky failed to use their overwhelming length and athleticism to their advantage against the undersized, yet tenacious Colonials. Quite simply, Robert Morris out-hustled, out-toughed, and out-fought the bigger and more athletic Wildcats throughout. When it was all over, the Colonial Crazies, Robert Morris’ vociferous and passionate student section, may have become the first group of fans ever to storm the floor after a first round victory in the NIT. But it was well worth it, as Robert Morris gave the Northeast Conference its biggest victory in the history of the league.
Using the feverish crowd to their advantage, the Colonials raced out to a 10-0 lead, thanks in large part to some sharp shooting from the perimeter. (It’s like the Wildcat players forgot the game plan defensively – do not let these Colonials get open looks!) Anthony Myers-Pate, Coron Williams, and Russell Johnson each hit long, open jumpers to kick off the festivities. Eventually, Kentucky would find their bearings and inch their way back into the game, but Andy Toole’s group set the tone early. These Colonials would not be intimidated by a team fortified with top 50 recruits and former McDonald’s All Americans.
After a 10-2 run late in the first half gave the Wildcats their first lead, Robert Morris fought back to lead at halftime, 28-27. Kentucky may have worked their way back, but Calipari was none too pleased as he was walking into the visitor’s locker room for the break. He told the ESPN sideline reporter that his team was shying away from the physical battle Robert Morris had allowed the first half to become. The Wildcat players needed to be hungrier and tougher if they wanted to avoid the monster upset, in the coach’s opinion.
Whatever Calipari told his team at the half didn’t really work. All-NEC first teamer Velton Jones came out determined in the second stanza, rattling off six straight points to guide his Colonials back to a semi-comfortable advantage. If the nation didn’t know about the feisty bulldog of a point guard who hails from Philly, then they surely did now. This kid is something special, but you (as a NEC reader) already knew that.
Ironically, it wasn’t the athletic, yet passive Alex Poythress, or the freakish tall Cauley-Stein, or the versatile Kyle Wiltjer who kept the Wildcats in the game when things were looking bleak for Big Blue Nation. It was the seldom used Jarrod Polson who best matched Robert Morris’ energy on the floor. Calipari rewarded the junior – who had only played 33% of Kentucky’s available minutes this season – with 31 minutes of playing time, easily a season high. Polson finished with 10 points on five shots to go along with three assists versus only one turnover.
Despite Polson’s and Archie Goodwin’s efforts, Robert Morris extended their lead to as much as 13 points in the second half, after a Russell Johnson three-pointer. Suffice it to say, things were looking so promising for Robert Morris that the Colonial Crazies were beginning to plan the best route for court storming. (Heads up, press row!)
Kentucky, however, had one last spurt in them, as they embarked on a 17-4 run to cut the lead to one, 54-53, with only 3:18 remaining. In the midst of Kentucky’s furious rally, Lucky Jones made things a lot more difficult for Toole when he physically assaulted Goodwin on a fast break lay-up attempt. The foolish foul was called a flagrant two, and lead to Jones’ ejection from the game.
With the game once again in question, Velton Jones put his team on his shoulders and refused to let his storied career end on Tuesday night. After a now motivated Goodwin laid the ball in with only 44 seconds left to tie the contest, Jones fed a cutting Russell Johnson underneath the basket. Johnson’s shot was blocked by Cauley-Stein, but Mike McFadden was there for the offensive rebound. He was fouled attempting the put-back, but calmly under intense pressure, drilled both free throws. A wild three by Wiltjer fell short at the buzzer, sending The Chuck into a frenzy.
It was an improbably victory for Robert Morris, who now will await the winner of Providence and Charlotte. Even more improbable was Kentucky’s inability to take full advantage of their size and skill set. Cauley-Stein and Witjer combined to take ten shots (ten shots!), while the Wildcats only outrebounded Robert Morris by four caroms.
It was another balanced scoring effort for the Colonials, who registered 1.12 points per possession in the win. Seven players scored, led by Lucky Jones’ 15 points. Also fitting, Robert Morris was perfect at the line, draining all 14 of their free throw attempts. They surely needed every one of those to make history on Tuesday night.
We have a feeling Andy Toole will be giving a lot more interviews down the road.
For some postgame reaction and reading, we strongly suggest A Sea of Blue’s reaction to the loss, followed by some angry Blue Blue Nation comments.