Mark Story

Ranking the 50 greatest UK basketball wins of all time: Nos. 20-11

Kentucky’s Brandon Knight celebrated after his jump shot eliminated No. 1 overall seed Ohio State 62-60 in the 2011 NCAA Tournament round of 16.
Kentucky’s Brandon Knight celebrated after his jump shot eliminated No. 1 overall seed Ohio State 62-60 in the 2011 NCAA Tournament round of 16. Associated Press

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 No. 20-11:

20

The game: Kentucky 46, Rhode Island 45, 1946 NIT championship game

The plot: Kentucky freshman guard Ralph Beard (game-high 13 points) sank a foul shot with 40 seconds left that gave Kentucky the win before 18,475 in the old Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Why the game is ranked: It was Kentucky’s first championship of a national tournament in an era when the NIT was a premier event.

Kentucky coach: Adolph Rupp

19

The game: Kentucky 101, Alabama 100, 1979 SEC Tournament quarterfinals

The plot: In a scintillating display of fast-paced basketball, Kentucky hit 68.3 percent of its shots (43-of-63) and outlasted Coach C.M. Newton’s Crimson Tide and star Reggie King (38 points) behind stellar guard play from Truman Claytor (25 points, 11-of-14 field goals), Kyle Macy (22, 9-of-16) and Dwight Anderson (19, 7-of-11) before 16,300 in the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center.

Why the game is ranked: It was one of the most entertaining basketball games ever played in the South.

Kentucky coach: Joe B. Hall

18

The game: No. 3 Kentucky 74, No. 4 Houston 67, 1983-84 regular season

The plot: Kentucky’s twin towers of Melvin Turpin (19 points) and Sam Bowie (eight, 18 rebounds) came out on top of the Houston star now known as Hakeem Olajuwon (14, 12, five blocked shots) before 23,992 in Rupp Arena.

Why the game is ranked: The lavishly hyped Super Bowl Sunday showdown is still one of the best games played in Rupp.

Kentucky coach: Joe B. Hall

17

The game: No.1 Kentucky 73, No. 5 North Carolina 72, 2011-12 regular season

The plot: Kentucky freshman big man Anthony Davis blocked North Carolina forward John Henson’s 10-foot jumper with around five seconds left in the game to secure a UK victory before 24,398 in Rupp Arena.

Why the game is ranked: The most-anticipated Rupp Arena game of the 21st century so far did not disappoint.

Kentucky coach: John Calipari

16

The game: Kentucky 74, No. 12 Wisconsin 73, 2014 NCAA Tournament Final Four

The plot: Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison hit his third straight Big Dance game-winner when he buried a contested three-pointer from the deep left wing with 5.7 seconds left to send UK to the NCAA finals before 79,444 in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Why the game is ranked: The game’s decisive play came from the player on the greatest run of clutch-shooting in Kentucky Wildcats basketball history.

Kentucky coach: John Calipari

15

The game: No. 1 Kentucky 83, No. 2 Duke 79, 1966 NCAA Tournament Final Four

The plot: Louie Dampier (23 points) and Pat Riley (19) led the top-ranked Cats past No. 2 Duke in front of 14,253 at the Cole Field House in College Park, Md.

Why the game is ranked: A No. 1-ranked Kentucky beating a No. 2 Duke in a Final Four game is epic even if many UK backers retroactively wound up wishing the all-white Blue Devils, rather than UK’s all-white roster, would have been the team on the wrong side of history against Texas Western’s all-black starting lineup in the 1966 NCAA finals.

Kentucky coach: Adolph Rupp

14

The game: No. 5 Kentucky 78, No. 7 Utah 69, 1998 NCAA Tournament championship game

The plot: Scott Padgett (17 points) and Jeff Sheppard (16) led “The Comeback Cats” to UK’s seventh NCAA title before 40,509 in San Antonio’s Alamodome by rallying from double digits down in the second half for the third straight March Madness game.

Why the game is ranked: As achievements go, rallying from 10 down in the second half to win an NCAA finals is fairly huge.

Kentucky coach: Tubby Smith

13

The game: No. 11 Kentucky 62, No. 1 Ohio State 60, 2011 NCAA Tournament round of 16

The plot: Brandon Knight’s pull-up jumper over Aaron Craft with 5.4 seconds left allowed UK to oust the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed in front of 18,343 at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

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Kentucky big man Josh Harrellson dunked in the Wildcats’ 62-60 upset of No. 1 Ohio State in the 2011 NCAA Tournament East Region semifinals in Newark, N.J. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

Why the game is ranked: One of the most significant UK March Madness victories ever.

Kentucky coach: John Calipari

12

The game: No. 1 Kentucky 46, No. 2 Oklahoma A&M 36, 1949 NCAA Tournament championship game

The plot: Alex Groza had 25 points to lead Kentucky to its second straight NCAA title before 12,500 in the Edmundson Pavilion in Seattle.

Why the game is ranked: Of Kentucky’s eight NCAA title game victories, this is the only one that came in a matchup of teams ranked No. 1 vs. No. 2. It was also an NCAA championship game meeting of coaching giants Adolph Rupp and Henry Iba.

Kentucky coach: Adolph Rupp

11

The game: No. 1 Kentucky 52, No. 4 Michigan State 49, 1978 NCAA Tournament round of eight

The plot: UK sophomore point guard Kyle Macy scored nine points in the final 6:16 to rally the Wildcats past Michigan State and freshman star Earvin “Magic” Johnson before 13,485 at the University of Dayton Arena.

Why the game is ranked: A clutch comeback against an MSU team that, in Magic Johnson, featured a player who was destined to become a basketball icon.

Kentucky coach: Joe B. Hall

Coming next

The 10 greatest wins in UK men’s basketball history

Previously

View games 50-41, games 40-31 and games 30-21 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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