Cats in The Garden: A look into Kentucky’s history at Madison Square Garden


Kentucky Wildcats junior forward Nick Richards (4) dunks the ball during Kentucky’s game against Michigan State as part of the State Farm Champions Classic on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. UK won 69-62. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Cole Parke

Kentucky basketball opens their regular season on Nov. 9, looking to right all of the wrongs that occurred in their abysmal 2020-21 campaign. 

Standing in the Cats’ way on opening night of the 2021-22 season is a familiar foe in No. 9 Duke.

The two storied programs will face off in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden in the heart of New York City.

While Kentucky and Duke have never faced each other in The Garden, the Wildcats are no strangers to the arena. UK has played at MSG 18 times, boasting a 14-4 record in the process.

The first time the Wildcats took the court at The Garden was on March 13, 1976, just eight years after it was opened, in the first round of the NIT tournament against Niagara. Kentucky would win the game 67-61.

UK would then go on to defeat Kansas State and Providence in the tournament, reaching the championship of the NIT.

Led by coach Joe B. Hall, the Wildcats found themselves pitted against the Charlotte 49ers to decide that year’s NIT Champion. Kentucky would win the game 71-67 on the backs of Mike Phillips and Larry Johnson, who both scored 16 points.

Sixteen years would pass before Kentucky would find themselves back in Madison Square Garden. On Dec. 28, 1992, Rick Pitino led Kentucky into the ECAC Holiday Festival. Kentucky would defeat Rutgers, then two days later, beat St. John’s in front of almost 15,000 fans.

Kentucky returned to New York City in 1995, once again playing in the ECAC Holiday Festival. Like 1992, the Cats would win the event, beating Iona and Rider in high scoring fashion. UK won both games with a combined score of 196, with Kentucky’s Tony Delk finishing the event with a combined 53 points, scoring 29 against Iona and setting the record for most points scored by a Wildcat in MSG. His record still stands today, though it was tied by P.J. Washington in 2018.

The next time Kentucky would find themselves in The Garden would be 1999’s Preseason NIT. Though the Cats beat Maryland in the first round 61-58, they took their first loss in the arena in the championship against the Arizona Wildcats. Only two UK players, Desmond Allison and Tayshaun Prince, put up double digit points in the loss, while no one else on the roster scored above six.

After losing to Arizona, the Wildcats would lose their next two games in MSG, both in the 2000 Coaches vs. Cancer IKON Classic. Kentucky lost by one point to St. John’s in the first round, before falling short in overtime against UCLA, losing 97-92 in the third place game.

Nine years later, Kentucky got back to their winning ways in The Garden, beating UConn in the SEC/Big East Invitational in the Wildcats’ first year under current head coach John Calipari. John Wall carried the Cats, scoring 25 points in the victory. 

In 2011, Kentucky played in their first Champions Classic in the arena, outlasting Kansas 75-65. Notably, Anthony Davis set Kentucky’s record for blocked shots at MSG, recording seven during the contest. Kentucky returned in 2016 for their second Champions Classic, this time defeating Michigan State 69-48 on the back of Malik Monk’s 23 points.

The Cats were invited to the Citi Hoops Classic in 2017, where they would beat Monmouth 93-76. One year later, they took part in the classic once again, falling to Seton Hall 84-83 in overtime. The loss stands as UK’s most recent defeat in Madison Square Garden. 

Kentucky’s most recent venture to The Garden was in 2019, when the No. 2 Cats recorded a seven point victory over then ranked No. 1 Michigan State in the Champions Classic. Tyrese Maxey led all scorers, putting up 26 points in the win.

Under Calipari, the Cats are 5-1 in MSG. On the opposing side, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski carries a 31-11 record at The Garden as he enters his final coaching season.

Tip-off between the Cats and Blue Devils is set for 9:30 p.m. E.T and will air on ESPN.