Mark Story

In new film, 1998 Cats say one moment led directly to UK’s most improbable NCAA title

Then-Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith and the 1998 Wildcats hoisted the NCAA championship trophy after rallying from 41-31 down at halftime to beat Utah 78-69 and claim the most unlikely of UK’s eight men’s basketball national championships.
Then-Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith and the 1998 Wildcats hoisted the NCAA championship trophy after rallying from 41-31 down at halftime to beat Utah 78-69 and claim the most unlikely of UK’s eight men’s basketball national championships. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

Cameron Mills knows that conventional wisdom in the sports media is that team meetings never work.

“That always makes me laugh,” Mills says, “because a team meeting is the reason we won the 1998 NCAA championship.”

This college basketball season is the 20-year anniversary of the most unlikely of Kentucky’s eight men’s basketball national titles, the 1997-98 championship won by then-first-year Wildcats Coach Tubby Smith.

To commemorate the team that rallied from double-digits down in the second half to win its final three NCAA tourney games, Mills, a senior guard on the 1997-98 Cats, WKYT-TV producer Dick Gabriel and Kentucky-based filmmaker Jason Epperson have combined to produce a new documentary (the same trio made a prior film on UK’s 1996 NCAA title team).

“Out Of The Blue: The 1998 National Champion Kentucky Wildcats” will debut on Lexington television on Christmas Day at 4 p.m. on WKYT (TV and purchasing information for the film is below).

980323UKDUKEsfa14
Cameron Mills shot the three-pointer that capped Kentucky’s comeback from 17 points down against Duke in the 1998 NCAA Tournament South Region finals to take the lead. “The Comeback Cats” went on to beat Duke and, after two more rallies from double-digits behind in the Final Four, win the NCAA title. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

On Valentine’s Day of 1998, Kentucky lost to Mississippi in Rupp Arena. It was the third game UK had lost that season in Rupp, including a head-scratching 79-76 loss to a Louisville team that would finish the season 12-20.

After the Ole Miss defeat, a players-only meeting was called. In the session, a veteran-dominated UK team decided it had to let go of its allegiance to the playing style of prior Kentucky coach Rick Pitino and embrace the way new head man Smith wanted things done.

“It wasn’t like we were in rebellion against Coach Smith or anything,” recalls Mills. “But we were a very experienced team, and we’d played in the past two national championship games (winning in 1996, losing in 1997) doing things Coach Pitino’s way. We knew Coach Pitino’s way worked.

Former Kentucky guard Cameron Mills, WKYT-TV producer Dick Gabriel and Kentucky-based filmmaker Jason Epperson teamed up to produce a documentary on "The Comeback Cats," one of UK's most improbable national championship teams.

“But in that (team) meeting, we decided that not being all-in with Coach Smith was definitely not going to work. We didn’t know for sure that buying in with Coach Smith would work, but we knew for sure not buying in was not working. So we bought in. And you know what happened.”

In what was a different college basketball world, the 1997-98 Cats had three seniors, four juniors and sophomore Jamaal Magloire among their top eight players. Guard Jeff Sheppard was a fifth-year senior. Forwards Scott Padgett and Heshimu Evans were fourth-year juniors.

170414MakersMarkcb353
Former Kentucky guard Jeff Sheppard, Most Outstanding Player of the 1998 Final Four, signed a commemorative bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon at Keeneland in April. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

During the fateful team meeting, “guys had the experience to recognize that the way things were going was not working,” says Sheppard, the 1998 Final Four Most Outstanding Player. “And (guys had) the maturity to realize how things had to change.”

After the meeting, the ’97-98 Cats (35-4) never lost again. UK memorably clawed out of epic holes in its final three games.

Sparked by point guard Wayne Turner, Kentucky rallied from 17 down in the last 10 minutes to beat Duke in the NCAA Tournament round of eight.

Lifted by Sheppard’s clutch shooting, UK came from 10 down in the second half to beat Stanford in overtime in the Final Four.

Getting big boosts off the bench from Evans and Mills, the Wildcats again came from 10 down in half two to beat Utah in the NCAA finals.

A large part of the appeal of UK’s seventh NCAA title team was how unlikely a national champion it seemed.

UK’s roster in 1998 was essentially the role players left from the star-laden UK teams of 1996 (nine future NBA players) and 1997 (Ron Mercer and Derek Anderson).

“We did have talent, but we didn’t have any John Wall, Anthony Davis-type star players,” Sheppard says.

Starting center Nazr Mohammed only became a standout college basketball player after shedding in excess of 60 pounds. Padgett flunked out of school as a Kentucky freshman, then worked his way back. Mills had to walk on to get a chance to follow the footsteps of his father, Terry, as a Wildcats player.

Most poignantly, starting forward Allen Edwards played in the 1998 NCAA tourney only weeks after his mother, Laura Mae, died from breast cancer.

SEC_KENTUCKY_SOUTH_CARO_LMX
Kentucky forward Allen Edwards (3) celebrated during the final seconds of UK’s 86-56 win over South Carolina in the 1998 SEC championship game. A day after attending his mother’s funeral, Edwards scored 15 points and had five assists and three steals. Anitta C. Charlson AP

“In doing the film, the thing that struck me is that the things those of us who followed that team in the media most remember are not necessarily what the players (most) remember,” says WKYT’s Gabriel. “What happened with Allen Edwards and the loss of his mom really had an impact on that whole team.”

Mills is hoping “Out Of The Blue” will help keep the story of “The Comeback Cats” at the forefront of UK basketball lore.

He knows it will serve another purpose.

“Our story is proof that a team meeting really can change everything,” Mills says.

Chances to see “Out Of The Blue”

There will be several chances over the next two weeks to view the new documentary film “Out Of The Blue: The 1998 National Champion Kentucky Wildcats.”

Additionally, a DVD of the film can be purchased (shipping will begin Dec. 27), at outofthebluemovie.com. The film can be purchased digitally at vimeo.com/cammills:

Christmas Day

4 p.m.: WKYT (Lexington) and WYMT (Hazard)

7 p.m.: EYMT (Hazard)

Dec. 30

Noon: WQCW (Huntington, W.Va.)

1:30 p.m.: WBKO (Bowling Green)

7 p.m.: WYMT (Hazard)

New Year’s Eve

Noon: EYMT (Hazard)

2 p.m.: CW-KYT (Lexington)

7 p.m.: WBKI-CW (Louisville)

  Comments