Mark Story: Top five senior send-offs in Rupp

Some Rupp Finales were unforgettable

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 1, 2011 

Mark Story

As with all goodbyes, every University of Kentucky Senior Day carries an emotional poignance.

Yet the best senior send-offs bring more — fun; a surprise guest; a really good basketball game — than just the melancholy of saying farewell.

On the day that blue-collar, man-of-the-people Josh Harrellson makes his UK home-game swan song, let's relive the five most memorable Senior Days of the Rupp Arena era.

5. 1978 — Seniors: Jack Givens, James Lee, Mike Phillips, Rick Robey

Opponent: UNLV

Outcome: Kentucky 92, UNLV 70

Why it is memorable: This was the farewell to the class of players that basically transferred ownership of the Kentucky basketball program from Adolph Rupp to Joe B. Hall.

In front of an NBC national television audience, Givens and Lee, Robey and Phillips put on a dunking exhibition unlike any ever seen from a Kentucky team to that point in Wildcats basketball history.

The Cats rained down eight — count 'em, eight — slams on the Runnin' Rebels. No one who saw it will ever forget the two-handed jam Givens threw down in the face of UNLV star Reggie Theus.

4. 2008 — Seniors: Joe Crawford, Ramel Bradley

Opponent: Florida

Outcome: Kentucky 75, Florida 70

Why it is memorable: Many UK fans wish to banish all memory of the ill-fated Billy Gillispie era. Which is too bad, because the first Senior Day of the Billy G. tenure was one of the best.

It began with a surprise appearance by Boston Celtics guard Rajon Rondo to present framed UK jerseys to his former Kentucky classmates, Bradley and Crawford.

The game itself had massive meaning on two fronts. Florida came into Rupp having beaten UK seven times in a row. Bradley and Crawford had been on the wrong side of every one of those losses.

Secondly, Kentucky had to win to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive. Continuing their own personal final-season redemption tours, Ramel and Joe came up big in the second half and made sure the Cats won.

After the game, there was something else unexpected. Gillispie took a microphone and spoke to the Rupp crowd, then had Bradley and Crawford do the same.

"I love you all," the soft-spoken Crawford told the fans.

3. 1986 — Seniors: Leroy Byrd, Roger Harden, Kenny Walker

Opponent: LSU

Outcome: Kentucky 68, LSU 57

Why it is memorable: In a break from the UK tradition of starting all seniors in their final home game, first-year Cats Coach Eddie Sutton announced the Friday before the game that he would not start Bryan Station product Byrd.

Which added a nice element of surprise when the 5-foot-5 guard was introduced with the UK starters. Said Sutton: "I had a wonderful dream last night. It said 'If you start Leroy, you will win.' "

While Happy Chandler sang My Old Kentucky Home, Harden leaned over to classmate Walker and said "thanks for the memories." At that moment, the tears began to stream down the face of the UK star.

After the game was in hand and the final seconds were ticking down, Sutton removed Walker for a final Rupp Arena ovation. In a show of respect, LSU Coach Dale Brown walked all the way down to the Kentucky bench to shake Walker's hand.

2. 2010 — Seniors: Ramon Harris, Mark Krebs, Perry Stevenson; junior Patrick Patterson also recognized

Opponent: Florida

Outcome: Kentucky 74, Florida 66

Why it is memorable: It wasn't any of the players charging through the pre-game hoops that lent this Senior Day its emotional impact. It was the presence of one player's mother at mid-court.

Two days before Terri Krebs' 49th birthday, her body ravaged by the breast cancer that had spread to her bones, lungs and liver, it was an act of supreme will for her to be in Rupp Arena to see her son make his only career start at UK.

Seated in a wheel chair, Terri got hugs during the pre-game ceremonies not only from her son but also from Harris, Patterson and Stevenson.

The perfect ending would have seen Krebs, a former walk-on, hit the game-winning shot, or at least one shot. He didn't do either, but it didn't really matter. This day was not about the game, it was about who was there to see the game.

Not four full months later, Terri died.

1. 1992 — Seniors: Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus, John Pelphrey, Sean Woods

Opponent: Tennessee

Outcome: Kentucky 99, Tennessee 88

Why it is memorable: The Mack Daddy of all UK Senior Days.

Film maker Spike Lee — an acquaintance of then-Kentucky coach Rick Pitino's from his New York Knicks days — sat on the Cats bench for the game.

It was the final game in Lexington for the senior class that stuck with UK through the harsh NCAA scandal of the Eddie Sutton era and then helped Pitino launch the rebirth of Kentucky basketball.

The plot of the contest was almost perfect. We say almost because Woods was ejected just before halftime for fighting with Tennessee's Jay Price. The other three seniors, all Kentucky natives, took over the game late by scoring all but two points in an 18-6 UK run that secured victory.

It was also the final Cats contest in Rupp Arena that legendary radio play-by-play man Cawood Ledford called before his retirement.

I can still hear Farmer turning to Cawood during the ceremony that honored the radio icon that day to tell his fellow Eastern Kentuckian "you are my hero."

If Kentucky basketball continues for eternity, there will never be another Senior Day any better than that.

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