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Kentucky Wildcat Basketball: The Unforgettables 20-years ago today

Today is the 20-year anniversary of the end of the Unforgettables' college careers at UK.
Today is the 20-year anniversary of the end of the Unforgettables' college careers at UK.

[Editor's note: This is another article from Wildcat Tip-Off 2012. You can find out more about the book by scrolling down the right sidebar]

Twenty-years ago today, on March 28, 1992, in Philadelphia, PA, Kentucky and Duke squared in off in an Elite Eight match-up often referred to as "the greatest game ever played." Perhaps the most iconic game in Kentucky history, it was the final farewell for the group of players who brought Wildcat basketball out of the mire and into daylight, the Unforgettables. In honor of the 20-year anniversary of the end of the Unforgettables' time wearing the Blue and White, A Sea of is re-publishing a story I wrote last summer for the 2011-2012 Wildcat Tip-Off Annual -- one can order the Kindle version for only $2.99!, or the .pdf version for $0.99! -- which pays tribute to the awesome accomplishments of three Kentuckians and one Hoosier: Unforgettable in Every Way.

The genesis of the Unforgettables can be traced back to March 31, 1988. That's the day a package sent by the University of Kentucky basketball coaching staff came open while being shipped to the father of Wildcat recruit Chris Mills. The Emery Worldwide Express package, according to the NCAA (and later confirmed by UK), contained not only a game tape of Mills, but also $1,000 in cash. What was to follow not only paralyzed the entire Big Blue Nation with fear, and trepidation, but also brought down a coaching staff, along with Athletic Director Cliff Hagan (who resigned in November of '88) and the program they were entrusted to lead.

There were allegations of cheating on a college entrance exam perpetrated by associates of Wildcat basketball, allegations of an Ohio-based UK booster giving away clothing to Kentucky recruits, and the father of high school star Sean Higgins claimed UK offered his son inducements to attend Kentucky. In all, the NCAA leveled against Kentucky 18 charges of impropriety by UK's coaching staff and boosters. A seemingly never-ending string of Big Blue malfeasance permeated the air, creating an unholy stench, while threatening to end the hoop dreams of Kentucky basketball fans around the world, and shatter the Commonwealth's hard-court Camelot into a millions pieces.

For Kentucky basketball fans, the summer of '88 became not only a summer of extreme discontent, but also the beginning of a storyline worthy of the most decorated Hollywood script writer. The groundwork for a return to glory by a motley crew of Kentuckians, a lone Hoosier, and led by a young, fiery Italian head coach, had unknowingly been laid.

Exit Eddie Sutton, Enter C. M. Newton and Rick Pitino

Kentucky's 1988-89 basketball season was the first losing slate the program had posted since the 1926-27 season. The Wildcats' 13-19 record was a reflection of the chaos surrounding the program, as well as the lack of talent within it due to player defections and suspensions, and signaled the end of Eddie Sutton's four-year reign as coach of the 'Cats (under immense pressure, Sutton resigned in March of '89).

Amidst the agony Wildcat fans felt during this time, the administrators at UK, wanting to hire an AD with a flawless record of abiding by NCAA by-laws, made the decision to bring former Wildcat player C.M. Newton to replace Hagan in April of '89. Newton, who had been a successful coach at Transylvania, Alabama, and Vanderbilt, brought with him tremendous integrity and the respect of the college basketball community. He also brought with him the burden of knowledge. Knowledge that UK was in big trouble, and that the task of bringing the program back from its near-death experience would be a monumental, time consuming slog which could take years to accomplish.

Just how serious the situation was became evident on May 19, 1989; the day the NCAA slapped Kentucky with three years of probation, banning the program from playing on live television in the 1990 season, and from post-season play in both the '90 and '91 seasons. Basketball scholarships were also limited to three each in the '90 and '91 seasons.

How long would it take to rebuild was the question bouncing around the hearts and minds of Kentucky fans and pundits alike. Reaction ranged from five or six years, up to a decade. Most UK fans figuratively dug in for the long haul, resigned to believe Wildcat glory was not in the near-term offing.

Then, in his search for a new head coach, and after being turned down by Arizona's Lute Olsen and Seton Hall's P. J. Carlesimo, Newton drew a bead on the young coach of the New York Knicks, Rick Pitino. Pitino, who was in the midst of reviving a moribund Knicks franchise, let it be known through his personal contacts that he might be interested in the Kentucky job.

Traveling to Pitino's Bedford, New York home, Newton resolved not to sugar-coat Kentucky's dilemma with it's-not-as-bad-as-it-looks nonsense; there would be no dismissing the seriousness of the circumstances. Honesty was Newton's trademark, and he wasn't about to mislead Pitino into believing the mountain was a mole-hill. In William Nack's Sports Illustrated article on Pitino, Full Court Pressure, published in 1996, Newton says he told Pitino, "You're not going to win but three or four games ... " the first season. "We have major problems. And we can't figure out why the head coach of the New York Knicks, on the threshold of winning a championship, would ever want to come into this mess."

Although the Knicks posted a 52-30 mark in the 1989 NBA regular season, Pitino wasn't happy in the job, and was looking for a way out. Luckily for both parties, Newton was more than happy to offer the successful, charismatic coach exactly that. And so, forever changing the fortunes of UK basketball, on June 2, 1989, Rick Pitino became the head coach of the University of Kentucky basketball program. Wildcat fans crossed their fingers and ordered lots of pasta.

The 1989-1990 Season: The Bombinos Bomb Away

Pitino inherited a roster short on talent, but long on Kentucky natives, and players looking for someone to believe in them. With UK's top two players from the 1989 season, LeRon Ellis and Chris Mills, transferring to Syracuse and Arizona respectively, Pitino understood perfectly why his athletic director told him the team would be lucky to win five games. But what Pitino did have were four players from Kentucky with Big Blue blood pumping through their veins, plus a shooting guard unafraid to take the shot, as well as a point guard with a chip on his shoulder, ready to show the world he belonged in big time college basketball.

More importantly, though, the 1989-90 season would be the world's introduction to what we now refer to as the Unforgettables: John Pelphrey, a rail-thin 6'7" 195 lb Paintsville High School alum and Kentucky Mr. Basketball in 1987, redshirted the 1987-88 season and played in only 22 of 32 games in the 1989 season; Deron Feldhaus, at 6'7" 210 lbs, was another Kentucky native out of Mason County High School. He won the Kentucky high school Gatorade Player of the Year in 1987, and like Pelphrey, redshirted the 1987-88 season at UK. In 1989, Feldhaus played in all 32 contests; Richie Farmer, the rock star of the group, and yet another homegrown product from Clay County, was Kentucky's Mr. Basketball in 1988. In UK's 1989 season, Farmer, listed at 6'0" 170 lbs, played in 27 of 32 games; and Sean Woods, a 6'2" 180 lb point guard, the Hoosier of the group, was academically ineligible in '89, a casualty of Prop 48. All chose to stay at UK and endure the abyss of probation instead of transferring.

Also on Pitino's 1990 roster were senior Derrick Millar, a hot-shooting 2-guard from Savannah, who was the team's only returning double-digit scorer at 13.9 points per game, and former Pulaski County star Reggie Hanson, an undersized junior center at 6'7" 200 lbs, who dropped in 9.8 points per contest while pulling down 4.5 rebounds per game in '89. Confidence inspiring? Hardly, but Pitino had a plan, and more importantly, he had players willing to learn.

Winning five of their first 12 games, with close losses to No. 14 Indiana, No. 24 North Carolina, and No. 8 Louisville, Pitino's Bombinos quickly beat the win prediction Newton honestly related to Pitino during the latter's recruitment. The lone blight (read: bad, bad loss) on the team's record was a 150-95 setback to No. 2 Kansas, a game in which Pitino kept UK's full-court press on full-throttle for the entire game.

The squad, though, through historically rigorous practices and learning how to play with one another as a truly relentless team, posted a 9-7 record over the final 16 games of the year. And in a game which foreshadowed the future of Kentucky basketball, the Wildcats were able to slay the No. 12 LSU Bayou Bengals -- a team boasting a roster of Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Jackson, and Stanley Roberts -- by a count of 100-95, rocking Rupp Arena like it had never been rocked before. In that historic contest, all four of Kentucky's future "Unforgettables" scored in double-figures, led by Feldhaus' 24 points, to go along with Woods' 12 points and seven assists, Pelphrey's 10 points and seven boards, and Farmer's 10 points.

With that unlikely victory, the die had been cast. Kentucky basketball fans were now officially in love with this group of 'Cats. A team no one thought would win more than seven, maybe eight games, had just bested a team with much more talent than UK's over-matched, out-sized, and athletically-challenged roster. But somehow, the Wildcats found a way to win, proving that sometimes the will to win outweighs the skill to win.

The 1990 season ended with UK posting a 14-14 record. Even more surprising, the 'Cats had a 10-8 SEC record. But how? How did this team of backups and human victory cigars win as many as they lost? How about shooting and making the 3-pointer -- UK took 810 long-range shots (nearly 30 per game), making 281 to their opponents' 167. How about playing stifling, frenetic full-court pressure defense -- UK had 103 more steals than its opponents -- and playing like their meal money depended on it. This particular Wildcat team literally played the game like the future of their families rested on the outcome of every contest. Every loose ball these 'Cats went after with vigor, every rebound like a shark seeks a seal, every possession was life or death.

The Bombinos, more than any other UK team, played for the name on the front of the jerseys instead of the name on the back. These players knew the stakes. They knew the devil was knocking at the door, and they knew they had to sacrifice, claw, and bleed to get Kentucky basketball out of the hellfire, and back on top of the mountain.

Wildcat fans can be forgiven for being largely unaware of the metamorphosis underway in Lexington. Rick Pitino, the architect of the turnaround, was well on his way to becoming the King of Camelot, and the players, Feldhaus, Pelphrey, Farmer, and Woods, were on their way to becoming unforgettable.

The 1990-1991 Season: The 'Cats Win The SEC!

With the addition of freshman All-America forward Jamal Mashburn and the return of senior center Reggie Hanson, along with Pelphrey, Feldhaus, Farmer, and Woods, there was guarded optimism as the '91 season approached. Could the Wildcats once again shock the Big Blue faithful with another season to remember?

To begin the year, Kentucky rattled off four straight victories, with two traditional rivals feeling the sting of losing to the 'Cats. Behind Farmer's 19-points, UK beat Notre Dame 98-90 in the Big Four Classic in Indianapolis, propelling Kentucky to its first national ranking in more than two-years, checking in at No. 25 in the nation. But perhaps the strongest UK performance in the early season came against No. 10 North Carolina. Although UK came up short, losing 84-81 in Chapel Hill, Pelphrey's 24-point game was nearly enough to bring the 'Cats victory. Tar Heel head coach Dean Smith was so impressed with Kentucky's effort and execution that he said after the game his team did not deserve the win.

The impressive efficiency the Wildcats displayed on the court for all to see was a direct result of three factors: 1) The uncompromising rigor in which Pitino conducted his practices, 2) the willingness of the players to accept Pitino's coaching, and 3) the unmitigated desire of Pelphrey, Feldhaus, Farmer, and Woods to elevate UK basketball back atop its formerly loft perch. Their teamwork truly was a thing of beauty, and was a Kentucky-fried example of how basketball was meant to be played. This team, led by Pelphrey and his stubborn, accept-nothing-less-than-total-dedication-to-winning attitude, was the prototypical example of how UK fans desire the Wildcats to play every night, every game, every time they step on the floor and represent the Commonwealth.

As the 1991 season wore on, with each passing game, each passing victory, Kentucky fans were witnessing not only terrific basketball, but the '91 team went a long way toward putting the past just where it belongs; in the past. By the middle of the season, with the 'Cats sporting a 15-2 record, and an undefeated 7-0 in SEC play, UK fans were no longer thinking about the embarrassment of probation. Instead the talk was of how unimaginably quick Rick Pitino and his band of brothers had made Kentucky basketball relevant once again.

To end the regular season, Kentucky came out on top in five of its last six games, ending the year 22-6 overall, and winning an improbable SEC regular season title with a 14-4 record. The team did it, once again, with long-range shooting, defense, and teamwork -- UK made 242 3-points shots compared to its opponents 99, outscoring the opposition by 429 points from beyond the arc, an average of 15.3 points per game. The 'Cats, via their spectacular pressure defense, forced 20.8 turnovers per game. Finally, led by Woods' 5.6 assists per game, Kentucky dished out 17.2 dimes per contest, proving this team knew how to hit the open man.

Prohibited from appearing in post-season play, UK's season prematurely ended after the final regular season victory over Auburn, but the party was just beginning. Normally reserved for returning astronauts and NCAA champions, a parade through a geeked-to-the-gills downtown Lexington was the reward granted to the squad responsible for bringing winning (the right way) back to the Bluegrass. Pelphrey, Feldhaus, Farmer, Woods, Hanson, and Mashburn, basked in the glory of an adoring fan-base.

The 1991-1992 Season: The 'Cats Come All The Way Back

Less than two years prior, Kentucky fans and college basketball experts alike contemplated just how much damage the UK basketball juggernaut had sustained; just how long would it take, if ever, for the program to reclaim its lofty standing in the hierarchy of the college basketball elite? The answers to those legitimate questions varied, but all agreed it would take time, maybe a lot of time. But reality, which is often more bizarre than fiction, came to the rescue in the form of Pelphrey, Feldhaus, Farmer, and Woods. Embarking upon their final season with Kentucky, the Wildcats were adorned with a preseason No. 4 national ranking, and to ranking-sensitive Kentucky fans, it was as if Eden had made its way to the Bluegrass.

For the first time in two seasons, though, UK fans were brought back to earth by an unexpected early season loss, a loss that exposed the Wildcats' glaring weakness in the middle. Pittsburgh's 6'10" center Darren Morningstar exploded for 27 points and 10 rebounds, pushing the Panthers to a resounding 85-67 pasting of a flat Kentucky team in the 1991 Preseason NIT (current UK assistant coach Orlando Antigua contributed nine-points and eight-rebounds in the game for Pitt). UK, which shot just over 19 percent from beyond the arc, were doomed from the opening tip, and never really challenged the Panthers. And as the game was being lost, a simultaneous "uh, oh" could be heard from the Jackson Purchase to the Big Sandy river.

As great teams do, though, the 'Cats responded to the setback with cat-like quickness, winning 13 of the next 14 games, most in blowout fashion (save a classic 76-74 over No. 9 Indiana in Indianapolis). In beating No. 21 Louisville by 14, Pelphrey and Mashburn combined for 51 of UK's 103 points. Mashburn, the Big Apple sophomore, was showing he was a big-time player, and a great compliment to the four Wildcat seniors. The Wildcats were rolling, and with post-season once again back in the mix, 'Cat fans were thinking happy thoughts.

Justifying the fans' faith (and expectations), UK won eight of its last nine games, capping off the regular season with a 99-88 Senior Day win over Tennessee, in what was the most emotional final home game send-a-way in the history of the event. The game itself, well, it personified to a "T" what this team, this group of seniors, was all about -- Pelphrey ended his Rupp Arena career with only nine-points, but he dished out seven assists; Woods, ever the epitome of a point guard, took zero shots in the game, but handed out six assists, and Farmer added four dimes.

Sharing the ball, looking for the open man, always looking for the best shot, not necessarily the quickest; offensively, that is what Pelphrey, Feldhaus, Farmer, and Woods were all about. Did they strive for individual glory? Not above winning.

And winning is what they did in the post-season. The 'Cats sliced up their SEC Tournament competition by an average of 17 points, beating No. 17 Alabama 80-54 in the championship game, as Mashburn was named the MVP of the tourney. The Wildcats were dialed-in and clicking as a unit, and were looking like a tough out in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

Then came Selection Sunday, and No. 6 ranked UK was placed as a No. 2 seed in the East Region, with a potential showdown with the overall No. 1 seed Duke Blue Devils in the Elite Eight. Yeah, defending champion Duke.

The 'Cats, never looking too far ahead, took care of their Big Dance business in a big way with an 88-69 win over Old Dominion. Paced by Pelphrey's 22 points and five rebounds, as well as Woods' 16 points and eight assists, Kentucky looked sharp and tournament ready (read: focused). Legendary coach Johnny Orr and his Iowa State ball club were next on UK's hit list, and surprising some fans, the Cyclones stayed close to the 'Cats in their eventual 106-98 loss; a game in which Pelphrey made four of five 3s on his way to 20 points.

Current UK head coach John Calipari led his reclamation project, the UMass Minutemen, into the Round of 16 against Kentucky, and were looking for some payback after the 'Cats basted UMass in December, 90-69. Kentucky was ready, though, and sent Cal back to Amherst with an 87-77 defeat, as the 'Cats advanced to the Elite Eight. Mashburn and Pelphrey were once again the dynamic Big Blue duo, combining for 48 points.

What was to follow is still referred to by many as the greatest college basketball game ever played. It was Duke, the nouveau riche defending champion, against Kentucky, the traditional power making its way back to the top; it was Duke and its roster of future NBA players, versus Kentucky, and its roster of lightly-recruited local boys done good.

It turned out to be two teams playing at absolute peak performance, as both teams shot the ball extremely well -- UK 56.4 percent, Duke 65.4 percent -- both teams took advantage of the 3-point line -- UK shot 57.1 percent from distance, Duke 53.3 percent -- and both teams played aggressive defense -- UK registered 12 steals, Duke eight.

The first half of the epic event was an even contest. UK held a small lead for the first 12 minutes or so, but Duke, behind Christian Laettner's game of a lifetime, surged toward the end of the half, and went into the locker room up 50-45. But just before halftime, UK received what some might say was a jolt to the system in the form of Laettner intentionally stepping on the chest of little-used UK reserve forward Aminu Timberlake, as he lay defenseless on the court. Laettner didn't so much violently stomp Timberlake, as say with his foot, "hey boy, stay down." Laettner was slapped with a technical foul, but most think he deserved more.

The second half was simply spectacular. The Philadelphia Spectrum was filled with focused players, vying not only for a spot in the Final Four, but also a spot among the immortals. The play was crisp, clean, and performed in an electric, pressure-packed atmosphere, making the two team's nearly flawless execution all the more impressive.

Both squads made big shot after big shot. In fact, in one second half stretch, Mashburn made two big 3s, Woods connected on a 3-pointer, and 2-guard Dale Brown dropped a long-bomb on the Blue Devils, keeping UK within striking distance. It was Duke point guard Bobby Hurley, though, who made the shot many UK fans thought might prove the death knell for their beloved 'Cats: With 11:15 left in regulation, Hurley ripped a 3-pointer, sending the Devils to a 12-point lead, their largest of the game. Kentucky fans began sensing, like only Kentucky fans can, the game slipping away, ever so slightly.

It was about that time that the 'Cats began showing signs of getting their second half second wind. A Pelphrey 3-pointer here, a Mashburn layup there, and suddenly after Woods' dead-eye laser from beyond the arc, the contest was tied at 83 with 5:20 remaining. From that point, until the end of the game, the battle was back-and-forth. In the final minute, with UK down by two-points, Feldhaus hit a layup with 33.6 seconds left, sending the game into overtime.

The extra period mirrored the final five minutes of regulation: Duke and Kentucky throwing hay-makers meant to maim, with neither combatant going down. Finally, down one-point with 14.0 seconds remaining, UK gained possession. As Sean Woods dribbled the ball down the court, in the mind of every Kentucky fan, the countdown began -- 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7 ...

Woods makes his move toward the lane, launching a 14-foot floater, rising only millimeters above Laettner's outstretched 6'11" frame; the shot banged off the backboard with force, but was truer than mom's apple pie and dad's while lightening as it tickled the Spectrum's twine, sending Kentucky fans in attendance, and throughout the Commonwealth, into delirious rapture.

All that was left was 2.1 seconds.

The arena, filled with over 17,000 numb, awestruck basketball fans, stood in unison as the official handed Grant Hill the ball. Everybody knew Laettner, positioned 75-feet down the floor, was going to be the target of the Hill pass. With the blow of the whistle, an unguarded Hill, a quarterback in high school, stretched back like a QB throwing to a streaking receiver, and let loose with a strike caught by Laettner just inside the top of the key ... Pelphrey and Feldhaus, remembering coming out of the timeout and Pitino saying not to foul, scramble to get a hand in Laettner's face ... Laettner, unchallenged, dribbled and turned simultaneously, rising up for the 16-foot shot ...

What happened after that moment is inconsequential. Whether Laettner's shot was on target or an air ball, this Kentucky team's legacy, it's gift to all UK basketball fans, had already been delivered. This team, these Unforgettables, Pelphrey, Feldhaus, Farmer, and Woods, restored the luster to a program so hampered by NCAA sanctions only two years before, that a deep tournament run was unthinkable in the minds of even the most optimistic 'Cat fans. They restored the luster by staying, when they easily could have rationalized leaving, but the Unforgettables knew the job of restoration fell to them, and for that all Kentucky Wildcat basketball fans should be grateful.