“5 4 3 2 1 Thats it! The University of Kentucky has won the 1996 men s NCAA National Championship!” said U.K. radio analysts Ralph Hackard. It was on the night of April 1, 1996 at the Medowlands Coliseum in East Rutherford, NJ. The University of Kentucky had won the schools sixth national championship, and the first since 1978. It was a joyous night, but the struggle to get there was a long and hard one ..
During the summer of 1989, the NCAA announced that U.K. would be prohibited from post season play, not allowed on national television, and would be given only 6 scholarships for t he next two seasons. Since Kentucky was the all time winingest school in history, it was a huge shock for most of America. In the 1988-89 season U.K. had a record 13-19. It was the worst record in the schools 93 year history. Needless to say, coach Eddie Sutton was asked not to return for the 1989-90 season. It was then when U.K. athletic director C.M. Newton decided to hire the then New York Knicks coach Rick Pitino. Pitino had proven himself worthy of the job by getting Providence to the Final Four in 1987, and by getting the Knicks in the NBA playoffs for three years in a row. The 1989-90 season proved to be a very interesting one.
Allowed only six scholarship players, none of which stood over 6 5″, the Wildcats put a tenacious team on the floor. Although they were routed by Kansas 150-95 early in the season, they still managed to post a record of 14-14.
In the 1990-91 season proved to be most interesting for Wildcat fans. Lead by freshman forward Jamal Mashburn, U.K. managed to post a record of 22-6, the best record in the SEC Since the Wildcats were still on probation, they were not allowed to officially claim the title, although the team celebrated never the less.
Finally probation was over, and things were looking bright for the 1991-92 season. U.K. played a fine season, and won the SEC tournament easily over Alabama, and was headed for NCAA tournament. The Wildcats made it to the Elite Eight, but were beaten by the defending national champion DUKE Blue Devils. The Blue Devils of 92, rated as one of the greatest teams of all time, beat U.K. in overtime on a miracle shot by player of the year Christian Laetner. The final score was 103-104. It is now thought of as one of the greatest games ever played in college basketball. DUKE went on to beat Indiana in the Final Four, and Kansas in the final. U.K. had already beaten Indiana once earlier that season
The 1992-93 season was a marvelous season; one in which the Wildcats only lost three regular season games. The Wildcats again won the SEC tournament, and again went into the NCAA tourney, this timed as a #1 seed. The Cats made it to the Final Four in New Orleans, only to be upset by Michigan s Fab Five, still known for their trash talkin . The game was lost in overtime only after Jamal Mashburn fouled out. The Wildcats final record was 30-4. U.K. had almost made it to the top, but the time was not right just yet.
Two more fine seasons followed, including memorable moments such as the “Marti Gras Miracle” in 1993-94, in which U.K. stormed back from a 31 point second half deficit to beat L.S.U. 99-95. With Mashburn gone to the NBA, however, the Wildcats simply weren t a national champion caliber team. Marquette proved that in the second round of the NCAA tournament, defeating the Cats by a final score of 63-75. In the 1994-95 season, the Wildcats won their fourth straight SEC tournament by erasing a 17 point deficit to Arkansas, and then coming back from a 9 point hole in overtime to win 95-93. The Wildcats National Championship hope were crushed by North Carolina in the Elite Eight by the score of 61-74. All of the pieces were almost in place, but the Cats would have to wait one more year before reaching the top.
The 1995-96 Wildcats started out the season as the number one team in all of the land. Just two games into the season, however, UMass stripped the Cats of their #1 ranking in a 82-92 victory. U.K. decided then that one loss was enough. They rampaged on a 27 game winning streak throughout the regular season, only to fall to Mississippi St. in the SEC. tournament final, 73-84. During that 27 game streak, the Wildcats outscored their opponents by 29 points a game. Some memorable moments from the streak was U.K. s 86 point 1st half showing at L.S.U. in which the final score was 129-97. Sophomore Antion Walker scored 28 points in the 1st half. The next game U.K. played T.C.U., and the outcome was nearly the same. Final score; 124-80. Senior guard Tony Delk stroked 9 three-pointers in that game. In the NCAA tournament, the Cats outscored their opponents by an average of 31 points a game. In the Final Four, U.K. rematched #1 ranked UMass. It was by far the game of the year, with the Wildcats coming out ahead 81-74 in the end. It was truly a battle. There was little time for rest, because the Cats had to play Syracuse for the National Championship in just two nights. During that game, the Cats shot a pathetic .384 percent from the field, while the Orangemen were hitting at 50%. Even though the Cats played, in my opinion, their worst game of the year, the still won 76-67. Tony Delk was named MVP.
During the 1996-97 season U.K. is off to a 6-1 start, ranked 3rd in the nation. Among those 6 wins includes beating Syracuse by 31 points. The Wildcats lost 3 All Americans to the NBA from last season, and the Orangemen lost only 1. Watch out everyone!!!