Exactly 50 years ago this weekend, a crowd of 12,600 jammed Memorial Coliseum to see the visiting Mississippi Rebels face Adolph Rupp's Kentucky Wildcats. For UK fans, it was a chance to celebrate with Rupp, who had earned his 700th career victory five days earlier when the Wildcats whipped Georgia in Athens 103-83.
The Kentucky-Ole Miss matchup also boasted the enticing prospect of a showdown between the Southeastern Conference's two leading scorers, UK's Cotton Nash (26.9 points a game) and Mississippi's Don Kessinger (25.3 ppg).
Yet what the crowd in the Coliseum on Feb. 8, 1964, actually saw was Kentucky produce a mind-boggling statistical feat. In a 102-59 victory over Ole Miss, the Wildcats pulled down 108 rebounds.
That mark — UK had 102 individual boards plus six team rebounds — remains both the all-time UK record and the NCAA Division I standard for team rebounds in a single game.
In a box score for the ages, all five Kentucky starters had double-digit rebounds. The 6-foot-51/2 Nash had 15 boards — in the first half. He then added 15 more rebounds after halftime for 30 total.
Kentucky's forwards Ted Deeken and Larry Conley, each 6-3, had 17 and 12 rebounds, respectively. The Wildcats' starting guards, Terry Mobley (6-21/2) and Tommy Kron (6-6) had 12 and 11 boards.
Half a century later, one question about that record-setting night all but screams through the ages:
How in the H-E-double hockey sticks does one team get 108 rebounds in a game?
Setting up a record
In the 1963-64 season, the racehorse pace of basketball that was Rupp's calling card was running full throttle. For the full season, Kentucky games averaged 145.7 shots a contest (both teams combined). By way of comparison, the games played by John Calipari's 2013-14 Cats are yielding 115.8 field goal attempts a game.
"It was Coach Rupp's style, he wanted his teams to get it and go," Mobley recalled last week. "A lot of teams would get caught up in our pace just trying to keep up with us."
The Ole Miss (6-9, 3-4 SEC entering the game) of 1963-64 was especially susceptible to getting sucked into Kentucky's frantic, up-and-down style.
"Mississippi, like UK, doesn't have much height. And the Rebels like to run," Larry Boeck wrote in The Courier-Journal's game preview on Feb. 8, 1964.
If you were going to draw up a blueprint for how to produce a game in which a team could get 108 rebounds, a scalding pace with horridly bad shooting would be a prime route.
"The first thing you need for a rebounding record," Conley said Friday, "is a whole lot of missed shots."
As it played out, the showdown between SEC leading scorers Nash and Kessinger took an errant turn. Nash had 23 points but hit only nine of 28 shots. That was far better than Kessinger fared, however.
Today, Kessinger is best remembered for his long stint as a major-league baseball shortstop, mostly for the Chicago Cubs. In a 16-year big-league career (1964-79), Kessinger made the All-Star Game six times and twice won the Gold Glove award for his defensive prowess.
Less well recalled is that the 6-1 Kessinger was one of the best basketball players in Mississippi Rebels history. For his varsity career, he averaged 22.2 points a game and was a three-time All-SEC selection.
"Donnie Kessinger was a darned good basketball player," Mobley said.
On this night, Kessinger had a Bluegrass nightmare. He hoisted 19 shots — and made one. He did hit three free throws to finish with five points. (Mississippi's leading scorer vs. UK turned out to be a Kentuckian. Guard Glenn Lusk, from Muldraugh in Meade County, hit nine of 16 shots and scored 19 points).
Conley now works as a TV color analyst for both college basketball and baseball telecasts. He says he occasionally runs into Kessinger when he visits Oxford, Miss., to work baseball games.
"I asked him one time about this game," Conley said. "Donnie said, 'Heck, yeah, I remember it. I only hit one shot. How could I forget it?'"
As the contest played out, Kentucky launched a ridiculous 125 shots — that, too, remains the UK school record — but made only 47 (37.6 percent). Mississippi took 84 field goal attempts and hit 24 (28.6 percent).
The Rebels' starting five was even smaller than UK's, going 6-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1. As both teams missed shot after shot, Ole Miss proved helpless on the glass. The Rebels were outrebounded 108-40.
In his game story in the Feb. 9, 1964, Lexington Herald, Ed Ashford wrote that "Many times the Kentuckians got off as many as four or five shots (a possession) as the ball seemingly refused to bounce toward the Rebels."
The Courier-Journal's Boeck in his game story referred to UK's total of 108 rebounds as "staggering."
The 1963-64 Wildcats would go on to finish their season 21-6 and win the SEC championship. Their year ended on a downer, however, when UK lost to Ohio University in its NCAA Tournament opener.
Yet because of that one "rebound night," the '63-64 Cats remain in both the NCAA and UK record books. That carries a touch of irony because at least three of the UK starters that night say they barely remember the game in which they set an enduring record.
Says Nash: "We're proud of that record. But the actual game, other than remembering that neither Donnie Kessinger nor I shot well, I really don't remember much about it."
Adds Conley: "I know about our rebound record, but I don't really remember the game itself much at all."
And Mobley: "Fifty years is a long time. I don't remember much about that game. I wish I did."
For the curious, in their first game after grabbing 108 rebounds, the 1963-64 Wildcats recorded a 65-59 victory over Mississippi State two nights later.
The Cats won the battle of the boards 34-27.