When Tubby Smith rolled into Lexington to coach the UK men’s basketball team in the summer of 1997, he was given the task of taking a team riding back-to-back championship game appearances back to the big dance.
Smith’s squad would include two seniors in the form of guards Jeff Sheppard and Cameron Mills.
Junior Scott Padgett, who had missed half the previous season with academic issues, went on to become one of the leaders of the team, which also featured future NBA player mainstays Nazr Mohammed and Jamaal Magloire.
Beginning the season ranked on the cusp of the top five, the Cats achieved a 35-4 (14-2 SEC) record on their way to becoming SEC regular season champions.
When March came around, Smith’s Cats found themselves as a No. 2 seed behind Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke Blue Devils.
However, by the time the March 30 championship game was over, it was Smith’s squad who were left alone in San Antonio’s Alamodome celebrating a national title.
That’s not to say it came easy for UK, in fact is was quite the opposite.
Round one was easy enough with a 82-67 victory over No. 15 seed South Carolina State.
From there on out, the Cats needed three straight come from behind victories to lift the championship trophy.
In fact, it wasn’t just any come-from-behind victories, it was three straight double-digit deficit come-from-behind victories that helped UK clinch the crown.
An 88-61 win over No. 10 St. Louis in round two was followed by a 94-68 win over No.6 UCLA in the Sweet 16.
In the regional finals it was No. 1 verus No. 2, as Duke and UK battled it out for a spot in the final four.
It had looked as though the Cats streak of appearing in championship games would come to an end when the Blue Devils took a 17 point second half lead.
For Duke, however, it was not to be as UK completed an emphatic comeback before over 40,000 at Tropicana Field in Tampa, Fla., to seal an unlikely 86-84 victory.
The national semifinals featured a 86-85 win over Stanford, before UK clinched its seventh national title with a 78-69 victory over Utah.
Sheppard ended is final college game with a championship trophy alongside his award of Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.
Smith had his first and only NCAA championship to date, and the Comeback Cats, as they would ever be known, would go down in UK history.