The commonwealth of Kentucky has been in a bit of a slump when it comes to producing men's basketball NCAA Tournament Final Four teams. Going into Sunday's East Regional finals matchup between North Carolina and UK, our state has sent a whopping one team — Louisville in 2005 — to college hoops' final weekend so far in the 21st Century. Yet as a state, we are setting a blistering pace on March Madness game-winning shots.
Over the last four NCAA tourneys, four players from four Kentucky universities have provided the thrill of winning a game by draining a pressure-packed shot on college basketball's biggest stage. One player has done it twice. Let's rank our state's recent NCAA game winners.
1. Brandon Knight, Kentucky
Dates: March 17, 2011 and March 25, 2011.
Sites: Tampa, Fla. and Newark, N.J.
Final scores: No. 4 seed Kentucky 59, No. 13 Princeton 57; No. 4 seed Kentucky 62, No. 1 Ohio State 62
The setups: Princeton. Knight was mired in a miserable 0-for-7 shooting day against Princeton, yet with the game tied at 57 UK put the ball in his hands.
Ohio State. The script was the same. Knight was 2-for-9 from the floor yet with the game tied at 60, Kentucky looked to its freshman point guard.
The shots: Princeton. Darius Miller set a pick for Knight near the top of the key. Princeton forward Kareem Maddox switched onto the guard and Knight drove past the 6-foot-8 senior and lofted in a runner off the glass with two seconds left.
Ohio State. After Jon Diebler's trey tied the game with 23 seconds left, Kentucky eschewed the timeout and Knight worked the ball to the right of the foul line. His pull-up, 16-foot jumper found bottom with 5.4 seconds left.
The aftermaths: Knight's Princeton shot kept UK from going to overtime trying to avert what could have been, by seeding, one of their worst NCAA tourney losses ever. His Ohio State game-winner put the Cats into the Elite Eight.
Knight's quote: "I work hard to be put in situations like that. I don't have a problem missing (late-game) shots. Whether I miss 20, I still have confidence to take the next one."
Reason for ranking: Two game-winning shots in three NCAA Tournament games speak for themselves.
2. Ty Rogers, Western Kentucky
Date: March 21, 2008
Site: Tampa, Fla.
Final score: No. 12 seed Western Kentucky 101, No. 5 Drake 99
The setup: Western had blown all of a 16-point second-half lead and trailed 99-98 after Drake's Jonathan Cox made a pair of free throws with 5.7 seconds left. With his team needing to go the length of the court, WKU Coach Darrin Horn instructed his players to put the ball in the hands of jet-quick point guard Tyrone Brazelton, who had already scored 33 points. As the Western huddle broke, Ty Rogers told Brazelton not to be afraid to kick the ball to the wing if he needed to.
The shot: Rogers inbounded to Brazelton, who took the pass and raced into the frontcourt. Taking the ball just far enough to draw the defense, he then kicked to Rogers on the deep right wing. The Lyon County product launched a 26-foot jumper. The final horn sounded as the ball was in the air. When it ripped through the net, Rogers sprinted down the court in celebration.
The aftermath: Rogers' bomb gave WKU its first NCAA tourney win since beating Michigan in 1995 and launched a run to the round of 16.
Rogers' quote: "We pretty much wanted the ball in Brazelton's hands and for him to make the play. ... He did a great job of finding me."
Reason for ranking: An exquisite basketball play under do-or-die pressure. When a player has to go the length of the court in game-winning scenarios, how often do you see them just put their head down and go. Brazelton had the presence of mind to read the defense and the trust in a teammate to pass the ball. Rogers proved worthy of that trust.
3. Demonte Harper, Morehead State
Date: March 17, 2011
Final score: No. 13 Morehead State 62, No. 4 Louisville 61
The setup: Down two, with the ball and just 23 seconds left, Morehead State Coach Donnie Tyndall told his Eagles in a huddle that he'd had a dream the night before about exactly that situation and Eagles senior guard Demonte Harper had hit a three-pointer to win the game.
The shot: In real life, Harper got the ball, worked the clock down, then rose up over Louisville guard Peyton Siva for a 22-foot three-pointer. It went in with only 4.2 seconds left.
The aftermath: The magnitude of beating U of L had Tyndall proclaiming it the biggest win in Morehead history. Have not heard anyone disputing that in the days since.
Harper's quote: "(Coach) told me, 'I know exactly where I'm going to. I'm going to put it right in your hands, Demonte. I don't want you to drive it to the hole; I want you to pull up and win the game off a three-pointer.' I said, 'Coach, I'm going to hit the shot.' "
Reason for ranking: Great a moment as it was, Harper's shot did not end the game. Morehead State's Kenneth Faried blocked a three-point attempt by Mike Marra at the buzzer.
4. Danero Thomas, Murray State
Date: March 18, 2010
Site: San Jose, Calif.
Final score: No. 13 seed Murray State 66, No. 4 Vanderbilt 65
The setup: Behind by one point, Murray State had the basketball under its own goal with 4.2 seconds left. In the huddle, Racers Coach Billy Kennedy drew up a play for Isaac Miles.
The shot: Murray State's Jeffery McClain inbounded to Miles, who swung it to the 6-foot-5 Thomas near the right corner of the foul line. Patiently using the bounce, Thomas dribbled once, pulled back and let fly with a 15-foot jumper. It ripped the nets as the final buzzer was sounding.
The aftermath: The shot by Thomas gave Murray State its first NCAA Tournament victory since a 1988 upset of North Carolina State and Jim Valvano.
Thomas' quote: "Probably the biggest shot I've ever hit in my life. It felt so good, I knew it was going in."
Reason for ranking: Unlike Harper, didn't beat an in-state foe from a larger conference. Wasn't as difficult a play to execute as Rogers' shot. And Thomas had only one game-winner in the 2010 NCAA tourney. It now takes two to get to the top of this list.