Because we are approaching the one-year anniversary, this week I watched the final eight minutes of Kentucky’s crushing, come-from-ahead defeat to Wisconsin in the 2015 Final Four.
That 71-64 loss in a game UK led 60-56 ended the Wildcats’ dream of an undefeated national championship after 38 straight wins.
Even knowing how the April 4, 2015, game ended, it was hard to watch the Cats’ bid for perfection slip away amidst shot-clock violations (three late ones) and ill-timed offensive stagnation.
My first-hand memory of UK basketball begins (fleetingly) in Adolph Rupp’s final season as Cats coach (1971-72). In all that time, I believe the 2015 defeat to Wisconsin was the most consequential, disappointing, painful loss for a Wildcats’ men’s basketball team.
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Yes, that includes the heart-wrenching defeat UK suffered on Christian Laettner’s famed buzzer beater in the 1992 NCAA tourney Elite Eight that ended the careers of the beloved Kentucky senior class known as The Unforgettables.
Those seniors, Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus, John Pelphrey and Sean Woods, had stuck with the UK program through a harsh NCAA probation, including a two-year postseason ban. In the classic NCAA game with Duke, Woods had put Kentucky ahead of the defending national champions with a remarkable running bank shot with 2.1 seconds left in OT — only to have Laettner trump it.
This week, I decided to survey some members of the Kentucky sports media who deal directly with UK fans almost daily. The question on the floor:
A year later, is the Wisconsin loss “worse” than the Laettner game?
Answer one: “No,” says Dick Gabriel, host of the Big Blue Insider on WLAP AM-630. “The Unforgettables, the kids who had stuck it out with Kentucky, were about to be rewarded in the very best way possible, only to see it ripped away in the most painful way possible. From what I can tell, (the Wisconsin loss) was the most disappointing loss of the (John) Calipari era for the fans. But I can’t put it ahead of Laettner.”
Answer two: “I think the Laettner loss resonates more, had more heartbreak to it,” said Larry Glover, host of Larry Glover Live on WVLK AM-590. “To me what made that the toughest, you had this beloved senior class and it looked like they had the game won, only to have it taken away in the most stunning way possible.
“With the Wisconsin game, once (UK) started taking those shot-clock violations, you sort of knew where it was headed. As a fan, you had some time to prepare for it slipping away.”
Answer three: “Tough call,” says Tom Leach, the UK Radio Network play-by-play announcers and host of the syndicated Leach Report talk show. “But I would say probably no, (Wisconsin was not tougher than Laettner). Close, but no.
“(The Unforgettables) were on the brink of a remarkable victory, at the end of a period of Kentucky basketball that had not had the normal level of success. It was so close, you could taste it, then it was ripped away. It’s like somebody gave you the best-tasting piece of cake ever, you got to take one bite, then they slapped it out of your hands.”
Answer four: “The Laettner game was worse,” says Dan Rieffer, co-host of The Dan and Mary Jo Show on WLXG AM-1300. “It was unexpected Kentucky would even be in that position, then you had Farmer and Feldhaus and Pelphrey, Kentucky boys who stuck with the program through the mess of probation and were so close to getting an amazing reward — and then the Laettner shot took it away.
“I know on our show, the Wisconsin loss is still an open wound for Kentucky fans — we still get calls, why wasn’t Tyler Ulis in the game down the stretch? — but I don’t think for sheer heartbreak and pain it was worse than Laettner.”
For my two cents, I think 24 years of watching CBS replay that Laettner shot over and over has distorted how people in Kentucky actually felt coming out of that game.
Painful as Laettner’s last-second shot was for UK fans, after that season people in the commonwealth were proud that Kentucky had taken the No. 1 team to overtime in a contest that was immediately hailed as an all-time classic. Fans were optimistic coming out of that Duke game that UK basketball was “back” (and it was).
As for the Wisconsin loss, when you make it to the Final Four unbeaten, the only satisfactory end to the season is a national title. Making it tougher, Kentucky lost the game in a manner completely uncharacteristic of UK’s play during the season.
In the one-and-done era, the circumstances that allowed Kentucky to put together a 38-0 team — which was five of the top seven players returning from 2014’s NCAA runner-up team and joining the usual Calipari-era elite recruiting class — might never happen again.
A year later, that Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker have enjoyed such boffo reviews for their rookie NBA seasons, and Ulis emerged as a consensus First Team All-American as a Kentucky sophomore, makes not winning it all in 2015 more painful ex post facto.
Mine seems a contrarian view, but I still think the Wisconsin defeat was “worse” than Laettner.