Mike McFadden hit two free throws with 8.7 seconds remaining and the Colonials stunned the defending national champions 59-57 in the opening round of the NIT on Tuesday night, sending the disjointed Wildcats into an uncertain offseason less than a year after cutting down the nets in New Orleans.
“This is humbling,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They think we’re supposed to win 30 a year, 35 a year, go to the Final Four, win a national title.”
Not this time. Not even close.
Robert Morris (24-10) led almost the entire way, never blinking in a rare visit from one of college basketball’s Goliaths. Then again, this isn’t the same Kentucky team that roared through the NCAAs behind stars Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
This batch of Wildcats (21-12) hasn’t been the same since center Nerlens Noel went down with a devastating knee injury. Kentucky lost six of its final 10 games, the last one coming just a couple of 3-pointers away from the house Calipari grew up in.
“This is a shot in the arm for them and they deserve to win the game,” Calipari said. “If we’d have won at the buzzer, it would have been a shame.”
The Wildcats came close. Calipari opted not to call timeout after McFadden’s second free throw but Kyle Wiltjer’s 3-pointer before the buzzer bounced harmlessly off the rim, sending hundreds of students onto the court following the biggest win in school history.
The triumph took some of the pain out of a heartbreaking end to the regular season. Robert Morris cruised to the Northeastern Conference title but lost to Mount St. Mary’s in the conference tournament. The defeat dashed the Colonials’ hopes of making the NCAAs, though the chance to play Kentucky hardly felt like a letdown.
“It’s probably the greatest consolation prize you can possibly have,” coach Andy Toole said.
Lucky Jones led Robert Morris with 15 points but was ejected for a flagrant foul on Archie Goodwin with 3:41 to play. Kentucky, which trailed by 13 in the second half, managed to tie it twice but could never grab the lead.
Goodwin scored 18 points for the Wildcats but couldn’t stop Kentucky’s tumultuous season come to a stunning end.
Robert Morris will advance to the second round, while Kentucky’s injury-marred underachieving year came to a merciful finish. Yet Calipari remains upbeat. He has another stash of high school All-Americans at the ready, though it’s uncertain how they will mesh with the holdovers from Kentucky’s worst season in the four years Calipari has been running the show.
“They haven’t had any discipline all year,” Calipari said. “We ended on a note we’ve been talking about (all year). We can’t really play (disciplined).”
The Wildcats let the Colonials race to an early 10-0 lead, only led briefly at the end of the first half and appeared disinterested to spoil the return of a hometown kid made good.
Calipari was born in Pittsburgh, grew up a couple of miles from the Robert Morris campus and played guard at Moon High a couple of 3-pointers away. He returned to Western Pennsylvania to finish up his college playing at Clarion and served as an assistant coach at Pittsburgh in the 1980s before hitting the big-time.
The homecoming, however, was less happy than hostile.
Fans scooped up the 3,500 tickets in a matter of hours Monday then lined up outside in the blustery March wind well before tipoff of arguably the biggest game in school history. Robert Morris averaged barely 1,000 fans during its 15 home games, yet there were scalpers asking for $75 to get in the door.
Though disheartened about missing the NCAAs, in a way, it may have served as a blessing.
While the NCAAs would have provided Robert Morris with a brief moment in the sun, the NIT gave the school of just over 3,600 undergraduate students an opportunity to host a program that would never otherwise have made the trip.
Kentucky earned a top seed in the NIT but was forced to hit the road because Rupp Arena is hosting NCAA games this weekend. Though Calipari warned his team to be ready, the Wildcats hardly looked thrilled to be there, and it showed.
Robert Morris scored the game’s first 10 points while the Wildcats — who typically play in front of home crowds in excess of 23,000 — stumbled their way through a series of miscues and appeared rattled in a gym with wooden bleachers that swayed underneath the feet of a clamoring student section chanting “Bobby Mo” every chance it could.
Senior Jarrod Polson came off the bench to steady things, and Kentucky recovered to get within 28-27 at the break.
Yet the Colonials never folded, making 8 of 12 shots during one stretch to move back in front 49-36 then holding off a late Kentucky push to send students leaping over tables and onto the floor in a delirious celebration.
It wasn’t the NCAAs, but in a way, it might have been better.
“For them to be able to come here and us get a victory, it’s a great thing for the university,” Velton Jones said. “It’s just crazy.”