Two-and-a-half hours before the game, the line of University of Kentucky students waiting to get into Rupp Arena to see the No. 8 Wildcats face No. 9 Kansas stretched deep down the High Street sidewalk.
When John Calipari and Bill Self sent their starting lineups to midcourt for the opening tip, the crowd noise in Rupp was so loud, my eardrums were vibrating.
After Keldon Johnson drained a trey from the left corner to put Kentucky ahead 50-44 with 11:29 left in the game, the crowd of 24,387 erupted into a ferocious yell that transitioned into a spontaneous ‘C-A-T-S!’ cheer as play continued.
It was vintage “Big Game Rupp Arena.” After this year, it will never quite be the same.
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With Rupp headed for a significant renovation that will involve a substantially downsizing for next season, the days of crowds of 24,000 filling the arena with a wall of noise are numbered.
That’s why Saturday was very much to be savored.
Kentucky (16-3, 5-1 SEC) pounded the smaller Jayhawks (16-4, 5-2 Big 12) on the glass and wore down the visitors to earn a 71-63 victory over Kansas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
In a battle between the two winningest programs in men’s college basketball history, Kentucky ended a three-game head-to-head losing streak against the Jayhawks. UK (2,279) also extended its all-time wins lead over KU (2,264) to 15 games.
With Kansas forced into a small-ball lineup of four guards and forward Dedric Lawson by injury (Udoka Azubuike) and an eligibility uncertainty (Silvio De Sousa), UK’s entire starting frontline produced double-doubles.
Kentucky post players PJ Washington (20 points and 13 rebounds) and Reid Travis (18 points and 12 boards) controlled the paint. Swingman Johnson (15 points and 10 rebounds) “played above” Kansas as the Cats dominated the rebounding battle 49-36 and the points in the paint 38-20.
Explaining the problems the smaller Jayhawks had with the bigger, bulkier Cats, Kansas Coach Bill Self sighed.
“We’re a little light in the butt, now,” Self said.
This is only the second time in UK basketball history that Kentucky has faced Duke, North Carolina and Kansas in the same season.
When Kentucky opened its season being obliterated 118-84 in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis by the Men of Krzyzewski, the thought of having to also face UNC and KU had to fill even the most optimistic Cats backer with dread.
Alas, with the win over KU, an improving UK managed to go 2-1 against its three historic hoops peers.
That Duke debacle robbed the Kentucky season of much of its swagger. What’s happened since is bringing it back.
“I’d have rather learned from a close loss than from an absolute shellacking,” Calipari said when asked about Duke. “If it helped us, great. But there’s no solace in what happened. We got absolutely clubbed by a very good team.”
The 24,387 that filled Rupp to see the win over Kansas was far and away the largest home crowd for Kentucky so far in 2018-19.
Next season, with chairback seats being installed along the sides to replace bleacher seating in Rupp Arena’s upper deck, capacity in the venue will shrink to some 20,500.
That upgrade in comfort for the fans “up top” at Rupp Arena is long overdue, and it is worth the loss in overall seating capacity.
Still, there has always been something special, even magical, when Rupp has filled to 24,000-plus for a big game.
It was certainly electric — and loud — for Kentucky-Kansas on Saturday.
“It was good, it was good. Now, it was not Allen Fieldhouse,” Self said, impishly, about the Rupp Arena atmosphere. “But, the reality is, it was a terrific atmosphere. I said before the game, this is why you come to Kentucky or Kansas.”
Kentucky has six home games remaining in 2018-19. Given the realities of UK’s current attendance situation, only UK’s showdown with border rival and current No. 1 ranked Tennessee on Feb. 16 seems certain to fill Rupp to its brim.
That gave Saturday’s proceeding a certain wistfulness. A 20,500-seat Rupp Arena will still be large. For big games, it will still be jacked.
But that special roar that only comes when there are 24,000-plus in Rupp Arena for the bigger games is coming to an end.
That’s why Kentucky 71, Kansas 63, with 24,387 strong loud and proud, produced a day that the UK basketball community should long cherish.