Mark Story

Ranking the 50 greatest UK basketball wins of all time: Nos. 40-31

Sam Bowie’s block of Howard Carter’s shot preserved Kentucky’s 73-71 win over LSU in the 1980-81 regular-season finale and denied the visiting Tigers’ bid for an undefeated SEC record.
Sam Bowie’s block of Howard Carter’s shot preserved Kentucky’s 73-71 win over LSU in the 1980-81 regular-season finale and denied the visiting Tigers’ bid for an undefeated SEC record. Staff File Photo

The University of Kentucky has won 2,263 men’s basketball games in its regal hoops history, 126 of them in the NCAA Tournament alone.

So trying to pick the “50 Greatest Kentucky Men’s Basketball Wins of All Time” is a fool’s errand. There have literally been hundreds of exceptional UK men’s hoops victories.

Still, for both the fun and the challenge of it, I set out this summer to pick UK’s 50 greatest men’s hoops wins.

What qualifies as a “great win?”

Obviously, Kentucky’s eight victories in NCAA championship games are the most significant wins in school history. If we were using “great” only as a measure of the magnitude of games won, this list would be the 50 UK victories that occurred deepest in the NCAA Tournament.

Rupp Arena celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Even as the arena works to re-invent itself for the modern sports age, take a look back at a remarkable run. Documentary footage from "Game Changer: The Lexington Center Story" courtesy Arthur

Instead, what I tried to do is rank the games that, as stand-alone entities, were the most compelling. That is why there are only four NCAA title games on my list of the 50 greatest UK wins.

Any list such as this is subjective. My list of the 50 greatest Kentucky victories is filled by games that featured:

1.) both teams playing at an unusually high level; 2.) high-scoring, up-tempo basketball; 3.) dramatic comebacks; 4.) unexpected victories; 5.) unique historical import; 6.) significant wins over rivals; 7.) victories against teams with iconic star players.

On the countdown of the 50 Greatest Kentucky Men’s Basketball Wins of All Time, here are the games that rank Nos. 40-31:

40

The game: No. 1 Kentucky 85, No. 15 Florida State 76, 1978 NCAA Tournament round of 32

The plot: The overwhelming favorite to win the 1978 national title, Kentucky was trailing Florida State 39-32 at halftime in its NCAA tourney opener before 12,700 fans in Tennessee’s Stokely Center.

Joe B. Hall in practice.JPG
A bold coaching move by Joe B. Hall in Kentucky’s 1978 NCAA Tournament opener against Florida State sparked the Wildcats, down seven at halftime, to an 85-76 victory. LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

To start the second half, Joe B. Hall benched starters Jack Givens, Rick Robey and Truman Claytor in favor of reserves Freddie Cowan, LaVon Williams and Dwane Casey. The three backups set a different tone with all-out hustle, then the chastened UK starters returned to win the game.

Why the game is ranked: The most gutty coaching decision in UK history launched the Cats toward their fifth NCAA title.

Kentucky coach: Joe B. Hall

39

The game: No. 10 Kentucky 90, No. 1 Arkansas 78, 1994 SEC Tournament semifinals

The plot: Kentucky made 16 three-pointers and placed five players in double figures led by Tony Delk (16 points) to stun the No. 1 team in the nation before 20,431 fans in The Pyramid in Memphis.

Why the game is ranked: One of six all-time Kentucky wins over teams ranked No. 1 in the AP college basketball poll.

Kentucky coach: Rick Pitino

38

The game: No. 2 Kentucky 97, No. 7 West Virginia 91, 1958-59 UKIT championship game

The plot: A balanced UK attack led by Sid Cohen (23 points), Bobby Slusher (19), Don Mills (17) and Johnny Cox (16) allowed the Cats to overcome the brilliance of West Virginia star Jerry West (36 points, 16 rebounds) before 11,700 in Memorial Coliseum.

Jerry West
Kentucky faced West Virginia three times when iconic Mountaineers star Jerry West played for WVU. UK’s sole victory came in the finals of the 1958-59 University of Kentucky Invitation Tournament. West Virginia Tourism Office

Why the game is ranked: A victory against West Virginia’s West, who is still considered one of the 20 greatest basketball players ever.

Kentucky coach: Adolph Rupp

37

The game: No. 5 Kentucky 69, No. 1 Indiana 58, 1979-80 regular season

The plot: Kentucky seniors Kyle Macy (12 points), Jay Shidler (11) and LaVon Williams (11) stood tall as the Cats took down freshman star Isiah Thomas (14) and the No. 1 Hoosiers before 23,798 in Rupp Arena.

Why the game is ranked: A victory over Bobby Knight and Indiana when they were ranked No. 1.

Kentucky coach: Joe B. Hall

36

The game: No. 13 Kentucky 96, No. 3 Ohio State 93, 1959-60 regular season

The plot: Kentucky’s Billy Ray Lickert (29 points) and Bennie Coffman (26) outdueled Ohio State stars Jerry Lucas (34) and John Havlicek (16) before 13,000 in Memorial Coliseum.

Why the game is ranked: An upset of the team that would go on to win the 1960 NCAA title.

Kentucky coach: Adolph Rupp

35

The game: No. 9 Kentucky 73, No. 2 LSU 71, 1980-81 regular season

The plot: Kentucky denied LSU’s bid for an unbeaten SEC season when Sam Bowie blocked Howard Carter’s potential game-tying jumper just ahead of the final buzzer before 24,011 in Rupp Arena.

Why the game is ranked: One of the most intense games ever played in Rupp.

Kentucky coach: Joe B. Hall

34

The game: No. 2 Kentucky 105, No. 4 Vanderbilt 90, 1965-66 regular season

The plot: Louie Dampier poured in 42 points as Rupp’s Runts won a crucial SEC road game over Clyde Lee (23 points, 14 rebounds) and the host Commodores before 9,220 in Memorial Gym.

IBAzc.So.79.jpeg
Louie Dampier’s 42 points helped No. 2 Kentucky win 105-90 on the road at No. 4 Vanderbilt in 1965-66. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

Why the game is ranked: The signature regular-season victory for one of Kentucky’s most beloved teams.

Kentucky coach: Adolph Rupp

33

The game: No. 2 Kentucky 65, No. 6 Louisville 44, 1983-84 regular season

The plot: After Louisville bested Kentucky 80-68 in overtime in the 1983 NCAA Tournament, the two schools agreed to begin playing regularly starting with the following season’s opener.

Before a raucous Rupp Arena crowd of 24,012, UK took U of L apart. Seniors Jim Master (19 points), Melvin Turpin (16) and Sam Bowie, who returned after missing two full seasons to leg injuries with a stellar all-around game (seven points, 10 rebounds, five assists, five blocks), led the dismantling.

Why the game is ranked: After U of L won “The Dream Game,” this represented the empire striking back.

Kentucky coach: Joe B. Hall

Kyle Macy free throw vs Kansas.JPG
Down 66-60 to Kansas with 31 seconds left in a 1978-79 contest, UK completed a miraculous comeback with Kyle Macy’s made technical foul shot after the Jayhawks tried to call a timeout they did not have. Kentucky won 67-66 in Rupp Arena. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

32

The game: No. 10 Kentucky 67, No. 5 Kansas 66 (OT), 1978-79 regular season

The plot: Down 66-60 with 31 seconds left in overtime, Kentucky seemed hopelessly beaten. Then Dwight Anderson sparked a comeback that culminated when his steal led to a game-tying Kyle Macy jumper with three seconds left.

After Kansas was assessed a technical foul for calling a timeout it did not have, Macy rolled in the game-winning, technical foul shot before 23,472 in Rupp Arena.

Why the game is ranked: One of Kentucky’s more miraculous escapes from near-certain defeat.

Kentucky coach: Joe B. Hall

31

The game: Kentucky 74, No. 5 Louisville 69, 2014 NCAA Tournament round of 16

The plot: Aaron Harrison buried a three-pointer from the left corner with 39 seconds left that put UK ahead to stay before 41,072 in Lucas Oil Stadium.

Why the game is ranked: One of the sweetest UK victories and most painful U of L defeats in the modern history of the Cats-Cards rivalry.

Kentucky coach: John Calipari

Coming next

Games 30-21.

Previously

View games 50-41 on Kentucky.com.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory

After years of delays, ground was broken Thursday on the extensive renovation and expansion of the Lexington Convention Center and Rupp Arena that will take three years to complete.

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