Mark Story

Ranking the 50 greatest UK basketball wins of all time: Nos. 30-21

Aaron Harrison’s game-winning three-point shot against Michigan in the 2014 NCAA Tournament Midwest Region finals gave Kentucky a 75-72 win and a berth in the Final Four.
Aaron Harrison’s game-winning three-point shot against Michigan in the 2014 NCAA Tournament Midwest Region finals gave Kentucky a 75-72 win and a berth in the Final Four. cbertram@herald-leader.com

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.

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. 30-21:

30

The game: No. 2 Kentucky 73, No. 16 La Salle 60, 1953-54 UKIT championship game

The plot: Cliff Hagan had 28 points and Lou Tsioropoulos 18 as UK rolled before 10,000 fans in Memorial Coliseum.

Why the game is ranked: The significance of Kentucky’s win over La Salle became apparent after the 1953-54 season. Unbeaten at 25-0, UK declined a bid to the NCAA Tournament because its three best players, Hagan, Tsioropoulos and Frank Ramsey were graduate students and therefore ineligible to play in the postseason by the rules of that time. With UK out of the field, La Salle won the 1954 NCAA championship.

Kentucky coach: Adolph Rupp

29

The game: No. 6 Kentucky 70, No. 1 Florida 55, 2002-03 regular season

The plot: Florida came to Rupp Arena to play its first game in school history as the No. 1-ranked team in the AP poll. Before 24,459 roaring fans, Kentucky held the Gators to 17-of-50 field-goal shooting and dominated behind Keith Bogans (15 points).

UK over No 1 Florida in 2003.JPG
Kentucky’s Keith Bogans, left, and Erik Daniels exulted after the 2002-03 Wildcats made Florida’s first-ever game as the nation’s top-ranked team miserable with a 70-55 blowout victory in Rupp Arena. Associated Press

Why the game is ranked: One of the most “jacked-up” atmospheres ever in Rupp and another of UK’s six all-time wins over a No. 1-ranked foe.

Kentucky coach: Tubby Smith

28

The game: No. 9 Kentucky 61, No. 5 Temple 60, 1958 NCAA Tournament Final Four

The plot: Vernon Hatton, who had starred in Kentucky’s three-overtime victory over Temple during the 1957-58 regular season, stung the Owls again, hitting the game-winning basket on a driving layup with 17 seconds left before a UK-centric crowd of 18,586 in Freedom Hall.

Vernon Hatton.JPG
Vernon Hatton was a Final Four hero for Kentucky’s 1958 NCAA championship team. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

Why the game is ranked: Featured a game-winning shot in a Final Four contest.

Kentucky coach: Adolph Rupp

27

The game: No. 1 Kentucky 64, No. 5 Arkansas 59, 1978 NCAA Tournament Final Four

The plot: Lexington products Jack Givens (23 points) and James Lee (13) led UK past Arkansas’ famous “Triplets” — Ron Brewer (16 points), Marvin Delph (15) and Sidney Moncrief (13) — before 18,271 fans in the Checkerdome in St. Louis.

Why the game is ranked: A tense Final Four matchup of top-five teams with the outcome in doubt throughout.

Kentucky coach: Joe B. Hall

26

The game: No. 1 Kentucky 76, No. 5 Illinois 74, 1951 NCAA Tournament Final Four

The plot: After UK standouts Bill Spivey and Cliff Hagan fouled out, Shelby Linville, a 6-foot-5 junior, scored Kentucky’s final six points, including the game-winning basket on a layup with 12 seconds left before 16,425 in the old Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Why the game is ranked: A game-winning shot in a game that essentially decided the 1951 national championship.

Kentucky coach: Adolph Rupp

25

The game: Kentucky 75, No. 7 Michigan 72, 2014 NCAA Tournament round of eight

The plot: Aaron Harrison sent Kentucky to the Final Four by draining a contested trey from the deep left wing to break a 72-72 tie with 2.3 seconds left before 35,551 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Why the game is ranked: Featured one of the all-time clutch shots in Kentucky basketball history.

Kentucky coach: John Calipari

24

The game: No. 9 Kentucky 84, No. 18 Seattle 72, 1958 NCAA Tournament championship game

The plot: Vernon Hatton (30 points) and Johnny Cox (24) led the Cats to their fourth NCAA crown over Elgin Baylor (25, 19 rebounds) and Seattle before a home-state crowd of 18,803 in Freedom Hall.

Why the game is ranked: The only NCAA championship Kentucky won within the commonwealth came at the expense of Seattle’s Baylor, who would go on to become an iconic NBA player.

Kentucky coach: Adolph Rupp

23

The game: No. 5 Kentucky 86, No. 10 Stanford 85, (OT) 1998 NCAA Tournament Final Four

The plot: Kentucky rallied from 46-36 down early in the second half behind a clutch shooting performance from senior guard Jeff Sheppard (27 points) before 40,509 at San Antonio’s Alamodome.

Why the game is ranked: A stirring second-half comeback in a Final Four game.

Kentucky coach: Tubby Smith

22

The game: Kentucky 60, Holy Cross 52, 1948 NCAA Tournament Final Four

The plot: Alex Groza went for 23 points and Ralph Beard 13 while Kentucky held Holy Cross star Bob Cousy to five points before 18,472 in the old Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Why the game is ranked: The pivotal win in the drive to Kentucky’s first NCAA title came at the expense of future Boston Celtics icon Cousy.

Kentucky coach: Adolph Rupp

Cauley-Stein block vs Notre Dame.JPG
Willie Cauley-Stein’s block of the shot of Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant helped Kentucky survive Notre Dame 68-66 in the 2015 NCAA Tournament round of eight and advance to the Final Four with a 38-0 record. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

21

The game: No. 1 Kentucky 68, No. 8 Notre Dame 66, 2015 NCAA Tournament round of eight

The plot: With its 37-0 record on the line, Kentucky trailed Notre Dame 59-53 with 6:14 left. UK rallied in front of 19,464 fans in Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena and preserved its perfect season thanks to a crucial blocked shot by Willie Cauley-Stein and two game-deciding free throws from Andrew Harrison in the final seconds.

Why the game is ranked: The win that allowed UK to take a 38-0 record to the 2015 Final Four.

Kentucky coach: John Calipari

Coming next

Games 20-11.

Previously

View games 50-41 and games 40-31 on Kentucky.com.

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

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

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