They call it “Catlanta.”
It’s a nickname not simply born out of a cute combination of the words “Cats” and “Atlanta.”
Kentucky returns to Atlanta on Thursday for a South Regional semifinal against Kansas State in Philips Arena scheduled to tip at about 9:37 p.m.
How has “Catlanta” come to represent everything a neutral-site opponent dreads about facing the Kentucky men’s basketball team and its Big Blue Nation in Georgia’s capital?
1) It’s an easy drive for a rabid fan base. Atlanta is less than six hours down Interstate 75 from Lexington.
2) Kentucky wins there. And Kentucky wins there a lot. UK is 35-12 all-time in “neutral site” Catlanta games, including 24-8 in the SEC Tournament and 5-2 in the NCAA Tournament.
In fact, there was a period of time the Cats COULD NOT LOSE in Atlanta.
It was that era in the mid- to late-1990s that gave us the nickname “Catlanta” forever.
A game for the ages
Kentucky’s dominance in Atlanta traces to 1995, when the Southeastern Conference Tournament made the first of its 11 appearances in the expansive Georgia Dome.
In a game then-coach Rick Pitino proclaimed at the time to be “the proudest moment of my coaching life,” No. 3 Kentucky rallied from a 19-point first-half deficit to defeat defending national champion Arkansas, 95-93, in an overtime thriller of an SEC Tournament championship.
No. 5 Arkansas, enjoying the peak of the Nolan Richardson era and his “40 minutes of hell,” would go on to the 1995 NCAA title game, where the Hogs’ bid for back-to-back national championships would come up short in a loss to UCLA.
But in this game, UK won the day with a team that included Rodrick Rhodes, Walter McCarty, Antoine Walker, Jeff Sheppard, Tony Delk, Mark Pope and Anthony Epps.
Kentucky trailed the entire second half until a pair of Pope free throws tied it 80-80 with 20 seconds left.
UK could have won it in regulation, but a pair of Rodrick Rhodes free throws missed with 1.3 seconds left.
Arkansas took control in overtime and led by as many as nine points with 1:32 to go and led by six with 50.4 left.
But Delk made a deep three-pointer from the right wing to trim it to 93-90 at 38.2.
Arkansas’ Cory Beck was fouled and missed both free throws at :37.
An Antoine Walker layup off an Epps assist cut it to 93-92 at :25.1.
That set up, perhaps, the signature moment of Epps’ UK career. Then a sophomore backup point guard, Epps cut off a baseline pass underneath the basket as Arkansas tried to escape UK’s press. He missed the layup, but got fouled as he gathered his own rebound and tried again.
Epps made both free throws to put UK up 94-93 with 19.3 left in overtime. It was UK’s first lead since 2-0 at the tip.
Scotty Thurman’s deep three to win it hit the front rim and fell to Delk in the lane. The clock had 0.6 seconds left.
Ball game. Euphoria.
It was a win that began to show the depth and determination that carried the Cats to their own NCAA title the next season and two more NCAA finals including another title in 1998.
The Cats took multiple knockout punches from one of the best teams in the country, bounced up in front of more than 30,000 fans in a shiny new arena and essentially said, “What else ya got?”
It also marked the beginning of a 13-game win streak in the Georgia Dome, a run that spanned more than five years.
1998: The year of Catlanta
The term “Catlanta” or “Cat-lanta” first appeared in the Herald-Leader in a story by Heather Svokos, a features writer, about a controversial WKYT-TV ad promoting the 1998 SEC Tournament. The promo likened Kentucky’s upcoming invasion of Atlanta to the march of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union troops through the South. Sherman burned Atlanta to the ground to start that march.
While all allusions to the Civil War were removed from the promo after a viewer complaint, a reference to Kentucky going to “Catlanta” remained.
And with a team that went 14-2 in the SEC in Tubby Smith’s first year at the helm, thoughts of a Big Blue conquest were not farfetched. The UK program hadn’t been beaten in the Georgia Dome (3-0).
This edition of UK would come to be known as the “Comeback Cats,” but they didn’t show many traces of it in five straight blowout wins in the Georgia Dome that year.
Kentucky swept through the SEC Tournament with three straight routs, culminated by an 86-56 drubbing of South Carolina in the title game.
UK got rewarded with a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and two more games in the Georgia Dome. Kentucky swept aside South Carolina State and Saint Louis in the first- and second-round games on its way to the program’s seventh national title.
Another solid season followed in 1999, including another three wins in the SEC Tournament at the Georgia Dome that gave the Cats an air of invincibility heading to the venue for the 2000 SEC Tournament.
Kentucky’s Georgia Dome record at the end of 1999: 13-0.
Don’t get cocky
“They call it Catlanta,” then-sophomore Keith Bogans said of the upcoming trip to the 2000 SEC Tournament. “They say we never lose down there. We’ll have a big crowd down there and it’s a fun place to play.”
Bogans and other players talked a lot about Catlanta coming into that week.
The result: UK fell as the SEC East’s No. 2 seed to West No. 3 Arkansas in the second round by a score of 86-72. Kentucky bowed out of the NCAA Tournament in the second round that year, as well.
Over the next eight years, Kentucky went 6-4 in Atlanta, winning three of those in taking the `2004 SEC Tournament title, but getting knocked out of the rest, including the ill-fated 2008 trip.
In 2008, Kentucky was slated to play Georgia in the final game of the evening at the Georgia Dome. The problem? An F2 tornado cut a 6-mile swath of destruction through downtown Atlanta and tore part of the roof off the stadium during the preceding game.
“We heard a noise like a train,” Glen Downs, a UK fan from Glasgow said of the moments the tornado tore through. “Then the whole roof started shaking ... then we sort of rushed out of there.”
With the dome unusable and the city in shock, UK’s SEC game was moved to Georgia Tech’s Alexander Memorial Coliseum where the Cats fell, 56-50, to a sub-.500 Georgia (13-16, 4-12) in Billy Gillispie’s first season at UK.
Kentucky’s Georgia Dome record at the end of 2008: 17-5.
Back in business
Kentucky did not return to Atlanta until 2011, when John Calipari’s second Cats squad began figuring things out with Brandon Knight at the point, along with Darius Miller, Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones, DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson.
The Cats rolled through the SEC Tournament on their way to what felt like an improbable Final Four appearance.
Kentucky’s Georgia Dome record at the end of 2011: 20-5
The revenge game
It was 2012, and Kentucky had Anthony Davis and company. The Cats’ only loss that season? At Indiana in a game so emotional and so chaotic, Calipari won’t play in Bloomington, Ind., anymore and UK hasn’t faced Indiana in a regular-season game since.
So, naturally, the NCAA Selection Committee set the two programs on a collision course in the Sweet 16. But this time, it wasn’t in Bloomington. Kentucky won 102-90.
“It was a war,” Kentucky Coach John Calipari said after the game. “Indiana played great and we just happened to play a little bit better.”
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist led the team with 24 point and 10 rebounds, going 10-for-10 at the free-throw line. Darius Miller had 19 points off the bench.
“This is a good team.” Kidd-Gilchrist said, stating the obvious after the game.
Kentucky ousted Baylor next in Atlanta on its way to the program’s eighth national title.
Kentucky’s Georgia Dome record at the end of 2012: 22-5.
Like 2011, Kentucky struggled to find its rhythm during the 2013-14 season, led by Aaron and Andrew Harrison.
Kentucky had just suffered an 84-65 end-of-regular-season rout at No. 1 Florida. While Calipari talked about a “tweak” that would help solve the Cats’ season-long discontinuity, few believed it.
Until the 2014 SEC Tournament.
Kentucky demolished LSU and Georgia on its way to a rematch with the top-ranked Gators.
Kentucky did not win. But it did not bend, either.
After trailing 54-39 with 11 minutes to play, the Cats rallied to within a point and had the ball with a chance to win at the end of the game. But James Young slipped taking a handoff from Andrew Harrison and time ran out.
It was Florida’s 26th straight win, but it woke something in the Cats.
“It’s definitely a big confidence-builder ... ,” UK’s Willie Cauley-Stein said. “We’re a brand-new team.”
Kentucky went on to reach the NCAA Tournament championship game where it lost to Connecticut.
Kentucky’s Georgia Dome record at the end of 2014: 24-6.
The next chapter
The Georgia Dome is gone, but Philips Arena remains within easy reach of Big Blue Nation. Now it’s up to the Cats to keep Atlanta Catlanta.John Clay and Ben Roberts preview UK's NCAA Tournament game in Atlanta
Kentucky in the SEC Tournament in Atlanta
1933: 4-0, Champion, Atlanta Memorial Coliseum.
1934: 0-1, Atlanta Memorial Coliseum.
1987: 0-1, The Omni.
1995: 3-0, champion, Georgia Dome
1998: 3-0, champion, Georgia Dome
1999: 3-0, champion, Georgia Dome
2000: 0-1, Georgia Dome
2002: 0-1, Georgia Dome
2004: 3-0, champion, Georgia Dome
2005: 2-1, runner-up, Georgia Dome
2007: 1-1, Georgia Dome
2008: 0-1, Alexander Memorial Coliseum
2011: 3-0, champion, Georgia Dome
2014: 2-1, runner-up, Georgia Dome
Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament in Atlanta
1986: 1-1, lost to LSU in regional finals, Omni
1987: 0-1, lost to Ohio State in the first round, Omni
1998: 2-0, swept South Carolina State and Saint Louis in first and second rounds, respectively, Georgia Dome
2012: 2-0, defeated Indiana in regional semis and Baylor in regional finals, Georgia Dome
Kentucky in “neutral site” games in Atlanta
1958: Defeated Georgia, 74-55, Alexander Memorial Coliseum
1962: Defeated Georgia, 86-59, Alexander Memorial Coliseum
1979: Defeated Georgia, 95-69, Omni
1991: Lost to Georgia Tech, 81-80, Omni
1995: Defeated Georgia Tech, 88-69, Georgia Dome
1999: Defeated Georgia Tech, 80-39, Georgia Dome
2001: Lost to Georgia Tech, 86-84, Georgia Dome
2005: Defeated Georgia State, 73-46, Philips Arena
Kentucky vs. Georgia Tech at Alexander Memorial Coliseum in Atlanta
UK leads series 17-9