As one would expect, a men’s college basketball team whose colors are blue and white and whose nickname is Wildcats produced the greatest sports moment ever to occur within the city limits of Lexington, Ky.
The twist is, it wasn’t the hometown Kentucky Wildcats.
In the 1985 NCAA Championship Game in Rupp Arena, Coach Rollie Massimino’s Villanova Wildcats shocked the world by playing a near-perfect game to stun Patrick Ewing and defending national champion Georgetown.
Massimino, 82, died Wednesday from cancer. The masterpiece of his basketball career will always link the coach with Lexington.
Villanova entered the 1985 NCAA Tournament as a No. 8 seed with 10 losses. Georgetown entered the 1985 NCAA finals with 35 wins — two prior ones over Villanova — and only two losses.
Yet, with the national title at stake, Villanova shot 72.2 percent in the first half. Massimino’s Wildcats then took it up a notch and shot 90 percent — hitting nine of 10 field goals — in the second half en route to a stunning 66-64 victory that denied John Thompson and Georgetown back-to-back national titles.
In my lifetime, only Triple Crown winner American Pharoah’s victory in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland is in the same ballpark with the 1985 NCAA finals in terms of national magnitude for a sporting event held in Lexington.
The 1985 Final Four yielded a weekend like none since in Lexington. As the college basketball world descended on the city, the University of Kentucky was also in the market for a new coach. Joe B. Hall had announced his retirement after UK lost to St. John’s in the ’85 round of 16.
With a who’s who of college coaches in Lexington, speculation was rampant over which one might be asked by UK to stay.
“There were all kinds of rumors floating around about who our new coach would be,” remembers Kenny Walker, then Kentucky’s All-America forward. “Part of what made that weekend so interesting was just listening to and dealing with all that.”
Alan Stein, who would go on to found the Lexington Legends minor league baseball franchise, was among those serving as volunteer drivers for the coaching celebrities visiting the Bluegrass.
Sutton, then at Arkansas, would ultimately be tabbed to become the new Kentucky coach.
What Massimino would have to show for his trip to Lexington were the Rupp Arena nets.
“He mostly was traveling with the team, so I didn’t drive him much, maybe two times,” Stein says of Massimino. “But you would think he might be a little uptight with what he had going on, but he was nothing like that. He was very friendly, very loose, made jokes, was even a little bit bawdy. I really liked him.”
Jim Host, the Lexington media and sports marketing executive whose company then held the radio broadcast rights to NCAA Tournament games, had Dave Gavitt, the Big East Commissioner, working as an analyst for a Final Four featuring three Big East teams.
After Villanova vanquished Memphis State and Georgetown blistered St. John’s in the national semifinals, Host said Gavitt told him privately he saw no way that ’Nova could beat Georgetown.
Tom Hammond, the Lexington television sports broadcaster, recalls showing up at Rupp to watch Georgetown vs. Villanova “having low expectations, not thinking it would be much of a game at all,” he says. “Then, during the game, Villanova started so hot, I remember thinking ‘How long can they sustain this?’ I couldn’t believe a team could play that well for a whole game. But they did.”
What makes the game a classic is Georgetown played well, too. The Hoyas shot almost 54.7 percent and 18 of their 29 made field goals were assisted.
Yet with Villanova hitting 22 of 28 field goals and 22 of 27 free throws, it was not enough.
“I’ve seen every NCAA championship game since 1975 in person,” Host says. “And I saw many of the ones before (1975). To this day, it’s still the greatest NCAA title game I’ve ever seen.”
Says Walker: “Nobody gave Villanova a chance. And they just played the perfect game.”
In November 2012, Massimino returned to Rupp Arena as head coach of Northwood (the school is now part of Keiser University), an NAIA school in West Palm Beach, Fla., to play the Kentucky Wildcats in an exhibition.
“Obviously, (the 1985 NCAA finals were) a very historic moment,” Massimino said then. “We respect and appreciate that. It was great for the fans, great for the university (and) for all of us.”
For the city where Massimino and Villanova worked magic, it was pretty great, too.