The stage was already set for an epic UK vs. IU matchup before the tipoff had even occurred. Kentucky was ranked #3 and Indiana was ranked #4, Kansas had lost earlier in the week and they were ranked #2. The winner of the UK vs. IU game would slide into the #2 spot in the nation.
Anytime both the Kentucky and Indiana flagship programs are at the top of their games, it is always a fantastic buildup and creates a final four-type atmosphere. In addition to the lofty rankings and #2 being on the line, both teams had two of the top players in America. Kentucky had all-American Jamal Mashburn and Indiana had fellow all-American Calbert Cheaney.
In addition to the aforementioned fanfare, Indiana head coach Bobby Knight was sitting on 599 wins for his career and you had better believe he would have loved to reach a milestone against one of the teams he hated most. The crowd was about as split down the middle with red and blue as it possibly could be and everyone did their best to drown out the other fan's cheers.
The game would start as expected with both teams trading blows and some built in nerves working their way out. Indiana would take a 15-10 lead and from there, "Pitino's Bombinos" would take over and hit six consecutive three pointers to propel the cats to a 42-36 halftime lead. The Cats would end up 7/11 from behind the arc for the first half.
Kentucky would come out a little sluggish in the second half and barely playing defense, but they would hold the lead for the majority of the half until Calbert Cheaney hit a three-pointer with 5:28 to go to give the Hoosiers a 67-65 lead. It appeared the Hoosiers had made the full comeback from down 11 points to seemingly control the game.
However, with 2:45 to play Travis Ford hit his seventh three point shot to give the Cats a 74-72 lead. Just over a minute later with UK up by one, Andre Riddick made the defensive play of the game when he swatted a would-be lead-changing floater. One possession later, Mashburn drove in the middle of the lane and put up a heavily contested, significantly contorted floater that put the Cats up 79-76 with under one minute to play.
Eventually the Hoosiers would get a last chance at winning when they worked an uncontested layup to pull within one point and fouled Travis Ford on the subsequent inbounds play. The 5'9" Ford calmly walked to the line and with the flick of his wrists he nailed the two free throws and an errant last second three by Damon Bailey and subsequent rebound to Kentucky's Jeff Brassow signaled a Big Blue victory in one of the top games in the history of the rivalry.
The game would end with UK winning 81-78 and a total of 159 points. The crazy thing about this game was that of those 159 points, 116 of them (73%) were scored by just four players. Calbert Cheaney and Matt Nover for IU scored 29 points each. Cheaney had his 29 points with over six minutes left in the game, but a heroic defensive effort by freshman Roderick Rhodes kept one of the best players in America scoreless to close out the game for the Cats.
Jamal Mashburn and Travis Ford also scored 29 points each. Ford and Mashburn would end up shooting a combined 13 for 24 from beyond the arc. Ford would also be the one who sealed the deal with his ice-cold free throws with nine seconds left and deny Coach Knight his 600th victory.
Watching that replay and seeing Ford with effortless range reminded me of a story my Dad had told me. He attended a Rick Pitino coaching clinic that year and had gotten a few minutes of Ford's time to chat. I was a freshman in high school and considered Ford my idol so my Dad asked Ford for practice tips. Ford told him I should never let a day go by without putting up 2-300 shots. Another exercise Ford did was lay on his back at the free throw line. He would then shoot free throws from his back, meaning it was all wrists. I can verify this was very difficult and after that, I never wondered how Travis Ford had range when he stepped in the gym.