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By Boyd Hayes
“Weep no more, my lady,
Oh, weep no more today!”
At 10 a.m. Friday, May 19, 1989, the NCAA gave UK basketball fans a reason to cry, as sanctions were handed down for rules violations in the preceding years.
Less than a week later, on June 1, fans were given a reason to weep no more: Rick Pitino was hired as the new head coach for the Cats, and charged with restoring the program to the basketball Mecca it had been. Pitino would do just that, coaching UK to an NCAA Championship and three Final Four appearances, fielding some of the most talented teams of all-time.
His 1991-92 team was not one of those teams. It did not make it to the Final Four, let alone a championship game. It didn’t even have any players taken in the 1992 NBA Draft. That team was, however, the rainbow after the storm of shame in the ’80s.
The pot of gold at the end of that rainbow — the greatest game of basketball ever played. The Cats would lose that game on a fateful shot by one of the most hated men in Kentucky’s modern memory, but their performance, their season and their team were unforgettable.
When the NCAA dropped the shoe on UK, most players and prospects ran for higher ground, with few staying behind to rebuild the fallen empire. Among the faithful were Kentucky natives Richie Farmer, John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus, as well as Indianapolite Sean Woods.
By 1991, these four stalwarts were seniors, and they made up the four chambers of the heart of Pitino’s team. They were joined on the roster by a sophomore from New York, Jamal Mashburn.
None of the seniors blew up the stat sheet, as teamwork was their staple. They combined for the second-most three-pointers by any Kentucky team in the past 30 years, as they passed the ball to find open looks with patience and cohesiveness.
Statistically, the real bread-winner for the Cats was Mashburn, as he led the Cats in most catagories: points per game (21.31), total points (767), minutes (1176), field goals (279), threes (58), field goal percentage (56.71%), free throws made (151), and rebounds (281). He also tied Pelphrey for the most steals (65).
One of the biggest numbers for the team was No. 4, the preseason ranking dealt to the Cats prior to Pitino’s third season. Hopes raised by the ranking were quickly deflated by an 18-point loss to Pittsburgh in the 1991 Preseason NIT, a game in which current Kentucky assistant coach Orlando Antigua scored nine points and pulled in eight rebounds for the Panthers.
With a poise that can only be gained through experience, the Cats bounced back, winning 13 of the next 14 games, including victories over No. 9 Indiana and No. 21 Louisville. The only loss of that stint coming in a one-point heart-breaker No. 13 Georgia Tech.
Finishing the regular season with only six losses, the Cats rocketed into the SEC Tournament and won by a landslide, beating Vanderbilt, No. 23 LSU and No. 17 Alabama by an average of 17 points. Prior to the tournament was an emotional Senior Night win over Tennessee.
When others had chosen to flee the scene of the crimes of the ’80s, these seniors had remained to help rebuild a dynasty.
Had the season ended after winning the SEC Championship, the team would have been remembered as a great stepping stone on the way to Pitino’s 1996 NCAA Championship squad. But the season was not over. The four seniors, who would come to be known as the Unforgettables, had not laid their last bricks on the rebuilt Kentucky program.
What was to come would cement the ’92 team’s place in not only UK basketball legend, but also in the magical history of the sport as a whole.
After breezing through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, UK faced John Calipari’s UMass team, pulling out a strong 10-point win. This put the Cats into the Elite Eight, where they would play what is widely considered the greatest game in college basketball history against Duke.
Rarely do events in history matchup to the legends they beget. The story requires no embellishment in the telling, as the scrappy Cats went blow-for-blow with Duke, who was heavily favored to win the tournament and the game.
One chest stomp and 203 points later, Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke team had won on a stunning shot from Laettner in the final 2.1 seconds of the game.
In the end, the bitter taste of defeat would slowly give way to the realization that the Unforgettables had gone above and beyond what anyone could have expected in 1989. They had fought tooth and nail for every victory, and in the end they took Apollo Creed 15 rounds in Philly.
The Unforgettables still mean a lot to Kentucky and the sport of basketball.
Mere days after the Laettner Game, they returned to Rupp to see their jerseys retired to the rafters, joining legendary names and teams.
Although many great UK teams followed, Pelphrey, Farmer, Feldhaus and Woods will always go down as some of the greatest, being truly unforgettable.