By Jared Glover
They weren’t the “The Unforgettables,” “The Untouchables” or even “The Comeback Cats,” but the 1996-97 “Unbelievables” had incredibly high expectations from the Big Blue Nation.
Coming off a National Championship and a perfect 16-0 SEC season, Kentucky fans were still celebrating the school’s sixth national title and the first in 18 years. With returning players Jamaal Magloire, Anthony Epps, Wayne Turner, Jared Prickett, Nazr Mohammed, Cameron Mills and Allen Edwards, the Cats were poised to defend their national title and hang banner No. 7.
Despite the returning talent, the Cats suffered their share of hardships. The 1996 NBA draft saw four Cats move on to the next level, including junior Antoine Walker. In addition to losing players to the draft, star guard Derek Anderson tore his ACL in a January matchup against the Auburn Tigers and was out for the majority of the season, coming back to sink two free throws in the Cats’ 78-69 victory over Minnesota in the Final Four.
After a dominant 35-5 season, the Cats returned to the National Championship game to play Arizona at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. Arizona went into the locker room with a 33-32 lead at the half. Because of what is considered by some to be the most poorly officiated game in Kentucky basketball history, Arizona shot 41 free throws to Kentucky’s 17. The Cats hit nine of 17 attempts, despite Mohammed going 0 for 6. Kentucky tied the game with 12.1 seconds remaining on a 3-pointer from Epps to send the game into overtime.
In overtime, Arizona made no baskets, scoring all of its points on free throws. When the final buzzer sounded, UK had fallen to Arizona 84-79, ending the hopes of a repeat, a task that hadn’t been done in the Bluegrass since the Rupp era.
The end of the season saw many changes, with two players being drafted to the NBA: Ron Mercer with the sixth pick to the Boston Celtics and Derek Anderson with the 13th pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers. However, the most surprising change that off-season for Kentucky fans was the loss of head coach Rick Pitino.
Pitino left in 1997 to move on to the NBA to coach the Celtics, where he found little success compared with his time at Kentucky. This set the stage for former UK assistant coach Tubby Smith to return to Lexington and lead the Cats to their seventh championship the following year.
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