Walter McCarty’s life has been jammed with memorable moments and famous people. So it’s reasonable to expect the unexpected when his Evansville team plays at Kentucky on Tuesday night.
McCarty played for Kentucky in the 1990s. His three seasons included making the go-ahead three-pointer in UK’s comeback from a 31-point deficit to win at LSU (also known as the “Mardi Gras Miracle”) and winning the 1996 NCAA Tournament (UK’s first national championship in 18 years).
After leaving UK, McCarty played in the NBA, worked as an assistant coach on the NBA and college level and became Evansville’s head coach in 2018.
Oh yeah, he also had a role in the 1998 Spike Lee movie “He Got Game” and put out three CDs of songs he wrote and sings.
When it was suggested that this made him something of a Renaissance man, McCarty said, “I’ve been told that. I’ll take it.”
McCarty grew up in Evansville, Ind., as a UK fan. “I remember as a kid just watching Kenny “Sky” Walker and Rex Chapman,” he said on Thursday. “I knew if I ever got an offer from Kentucky, it was going to be automatically at the top of my list.”
McCarty, a 6-foot-10 forward, also considered Purdue. The Boilermakers’ coach, Gene Keady, and his staff won him over. But Rick Pitino’s NBA background and fast-paced style of play (the latter seen as enabling him to showcase his versatility) convinced McCarty to sign with UK.
What UK memories come to mind a quarter-century later?
“Oh man,” McCarty said. “What’s not to remember?”
The Mardi Gras Miracle came on Feb. 15, 1994. Kentucky trailed 68-37 at LSU with less than 16 minutes remaining. McCarty’s three-pointer from the left corner with 19 seconds left put UK ahead 96-95. UK’s 99-95 victory remains the third-biggest deficit overcome in NCAA Division I history, and the largest second-half deficit ever erased by a winning team.
McCarty credited teammate Travis Ford for the ultimate victory.
“He was our general, man,” he said of the UK point guard. “He brought us together. We followed his lead.”
Kentucky had lost at Syracuse three days earlier. As UK fell behind by 31, Pitino sat quietly on the bench seemingly deep in thought. Meanwhile, Ford called more than one team huddle on the court during stoppages of play.
“We’re not losing this basketball game!” McCarty recalled Ford repeatedly telling his teammates.
Besides a flood of three-pointers (UK made 15 of 37), fear also fueled the comeback. It was clear that Pitino was not happy.
“He probably couldn’t wait to get us back to Lexington and in Memorial Coliseum,” McCarty said. “And we knew it. And we felt it.”
McCarty recalled another comeback the following season. In the 1995 SEC Tournament finals, UK trailed Arkansas — the defending national champion — by 19 in the first half. Kentucky rallied to send the game into overtime, but then trailed by nine with 92 seconds left in the extra period. UK again rallied and won 95-93.
“There was no quit in us,” McCarty said. “We had that gene that was in our DNA. We could fight back.”
The New York Knicks picked McCarty in the first round of the 1996 NBA Draft. Of course, Lee sat in the first row of Madison Square Garden.
“Every game and every warm-up, I’d run by him, and I’d say, ‘Spike, when are you going to put me in a movie,’” McCarty said. “Every game.” Then one day McCarty’s agent called and told him he had an audition for a part in “He Got Game.”
McCarty recalled reading lines with Denzel Washington and the fun being around such sports celebrities as Jim Brown, Earl Monroe, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal.
“Spike was a basketball fan, so guys would just be there because he loved basketball,” McCarty said. “We created just some wonderful moments on the set, in the trailers. It was cool for a kid from Evansville, Ind.”
No. 1 Kentucky
Presuming the victory over Michigan State elevates Kentucky to No. 1 in the next Associated Press Top 25 poll, let’s crunch some numbers.
It will be the 125th week that UK ranked No. 1 in the AP poll. That’s the third-most times by any program.
Duke and UCLA have been No. 1 the most and second-most weeks. For Duke, 142 weeks. For UCLA, 134 weeks.
Rounding out the programs with the five most weeks at No. 1 are North Carolina (113 weeks) and Kansas (67 weeks).
No. 1 versus No. 2
Of course, the Kentucky-Michigan State game pitted the top two ranked teams against each other.
No. 2 Kentucky’s 69-62 victory lowered the No. 1 team’s all-time record in such games to 22-20.
As for Kentucky’s record in such games, the program improved to 6-3. As the No. 2 team, UK has now won three of five games. As the No. 1 team, UK has won three of four games.
It was UK’s first time in a No. 1-versus-No. 2 game since losing 78-74 to Michigan State in the Champions Classic on Nov. 12, 2013. That was the game that served as Julius Randle’s coming out party as he scored 27 points and grabbed 13 rebounds.
Former UK players Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker joined Louisville native D’Angelo Russell on the cover of Slam magazine’s NBA preview issue. The magazine refers to the trio as “the league’s newest, coolest family. And they know it.”
Russell jokingly said during the photo shoot for the story, “We gotta do this again, when we’re all on the same team … I ain’t gonna tell you which team because I don’t know. We’re gonna do this again.”
Towns and Booker first met as highly touted prospects at the NBA Top 100 Camp at Charlottesville, Va.
“I remember just seeing a really, really pale white kid,” Towns said. “Turned out he wasn’t white. But that’s what I thought. They said he could shoot the ball better than anybody.”
The website NewArena.com produced a list of the top 25 college basketball teams of all time. Kentucky had three of the teams: the 1977-78 champs at No. 23, the 2011-12 champs at No. 16 and the 1995-96 champs at No. 12.
The only other SEC team to make the list was Arkansas’ champs of 1993-94 at No. 21.
Also notable was Christian Laettner-led Duke of 1991-92 at No. 11 and the Texas Western team that beat Rupp’s Runts in the 1966 championship game at No. 4.
The top two teams were unbeaten Indiana of 1975-76 at No. 2 and unbeaten UCLA of 1971-72 at No. 1. Incidentally, that UCLA team — led by Bill Walton, Henry Bibby and Jamaal Wilkes — went 30-0 with an average margin of victory of 30.3 points. For comparison’s sake, the UK team of 2014-15 won its first 38 games by an average margin of 20.8 points before losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four.
You belong with me
A UK fan attending the Final Four next spring might have added reason to think “Kentucky belongs with me” at that setting.
Taylor Swift will be performing at the Final Four. She will headline a free concert on Sunday, April 5, at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park.
To Jonny David. He turned 23 on Thursday. … To former UK coach Billy Gillispie. He turned 60 on Thursday. … To Dwight Perry. He turned 32 on Saturday. … To Brad Calipari. He turns 23 on Monday. … To Jason Lathrem. He turns 43 on Tuesday.