Emotional roller coaster continues for always-fervent Kentucky fan base
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Standing in the teeming lobby bar of the downtown Hyatt, Ed Clemons took a pull on his Bud Light bottle and summed up the dire situation in a sentence.
"Tonight's our season," Clemons said.
In an hour, Clemons and 24,354 other fans would fill Rupp Arena to see their reeling Kentucky Wildcats battle nemesis Florida with that most important quantity on the line: hope.
That's the beauty of sports -- you walk into an arena never knowing what kind of riotous plot twists and emotional swings are to come. Certainly nobody could have foreseen despair giving way to delirium in a few flicks of the wrist.
Losers of three straight, the Cats had played their way onto the outskirts of the NCAA tournament bubble, in danger of missing the Big Dance for the first time since the program was on probation in 1991. With another loss, all those Kentucky fans who take vacation days in March to follow their team might have nowhere to go. Hope was on the ropes.
Not only that, they were on the brink of an all-time low -- their first-ever three-game home losing streak in Southeastern Conference play. Kentucky has been in the conference since 1933, so we're merely talking about a 76-year run.
To stave off historic ignominy, the Wildcats merely needed to slay the program that has owned it and the Southeastern Conference.
Florida had beaten Big Blue seven of the last eight meetings. It has won two national titles and visited three Final Fours since Kentucky last hung a truly significant banner in Rupp. And Florida's coach, Billy Donovan, had spurned an all-out effort by UK to make him its coach in 2007.
That's why, with a dismal rain falling outside, the vibe was anxious in the Hyatt bar.
"It gets rougher every game we come to," said Clemons' buddy from Dry Ridge, Ky., Jeff Ammer. "It's a sad time for Kentucky basketball. We've never been in this situation. We're not used to losing at home -- that's the toughest part of it.
"But if everybody stays home, we ain't got a chance to win."
Ammer would be a prophet by night's end.
Nick Calathes stood at the foul line with the air vibrating around him.
For those few seconds, the sound in Rupp went beyond intrusive to percussive. It pressed upon the eardrums. It messed with the mind.
"That's the loudest I've ever heard Rupp Arena," said Kentucky guard Jodie Meeks, whose miracle 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds left would be the difference between agony and ecstasy.
Meeks is correct, but he's only a kid. I've been attending games here for 21 years, and I've never heard it as loud as the moment when Florida's splendid guard stepped to the line with three shots to tie. Not when Rex Chapman was soaring or Pitino's Bombinos were scoring 100 points. Other longtime Rupp regulars concurred.
It wasn't just loud. It was desperately loud. It was Calathes against all the audio force Kentucky's fandom could throw at him.
In that cacophony, Calathes suddenly lost the stroke that had made 11 of 12 free throws on the night. He'd scored 33 points, pulled down seven rebounds, dished three assists, made two steals and been the best player on the floor for 39 minutes and 55 seconds.
But then Meeks made that 3 to seemingly win the game -- only to have Kentucky's Kevin Galloway foul Calathes on an attempt to tie with six-tenths of a second left. After the officials cleared the prematurely celebrating Wildcats off the floor, they handed the ball to Calathes and Rupp went berserk.
The first free throw just caught the front lip of the rim, hit the back iron and popped out. Calathes sagged and Kentucky's players standing along the lane rejoiced.
Still, there was a chance to make the second, intentionally miss the third and get a tip-in to tie. But Calathes sent the second one hard off the back rim and it was all over but the final eruption.
"Choker! Choker! Choker!" the fans yelled behind the Florida basket as the Cats wrapped up their 68-65 victory.
"I just missed them," Calathes said.
Missed them under considerable duress from a crowd that knew how much was on the line.
"I don't know how anyone could have better fans in the whole wide world," Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie said afterward. "They came here ready to rumble, and they rumbled. I think they made a very big difference in the game.
"The thing is, we needed them the most. Obviously, we've been struggling a little bit. We needed them, and we're very appreciative of them showing up and making the great effort they did."
For the longest time Tuesday night, it didn't seem like the fans would have a chance to affect the outcome. Kentucky had done what it so often has done this year -- handling the ball with appalling sloppiness and failing to find enough scoring from someone other than Meeks and center Patrick Patterson.
Meeks was misfiring badly, missing seven of his first eight 3-pointers -- and the only one that went in was a straight-on banker. Patterson was ineffective, going 3-for-9 until spraining his right ankle with 9:06 left. He limped off and never returned, though postgame X-rays of the ankle were negative. (His status is day-to-day.)
At that point, Kentucky led 50-47. Florida answered with a 13-4 run for a 60-54 lead with four-plus minutes to play, pushing the Cats' season that much closer to the brink.
But then Meeks heroically rose to the desperate occasion. He buried a 3 off a curl move to make it 62-59 with three minutes left. Then hit a tough jumper to make it 62-61. Then after a Dan Werner 3 went halfway in and spun out, Meeks was fouled and hit two free throws for a one-point Kentucky lead, 65-64.
Werner made 1 of 2 free throws with 40 seconds left, tying the game and setting the stage for the final flurry.
If only it were that simple.
Meeks stepped back. As he rose, he felt a twinge in his left calf -- a cramp that cut short his lift. Meanwhile, Calathes got a hand on the ball. Meeks readjusted in the air, brought the ball to his right shoulder and flung it at the rim.
"We told him, 'Dribble to the left and shoot an off-balance shot,'" Gillispie deadpanned. "It was probably a lucky shot, but I really believe you deserve one once in a while."
Said Meeks: "I thought it might have been short because I barely jumped. When it went in I was happy."
Happy? Happy doesn't describe the reaction in Rupp. Instant euphoria is closer -- followed quickly by instant outrage and despair when Calathes was sent to the line.
"I was scared," Meeks said. "I was thinking he was going to make all three."
Kentucky's fans wouldn't allow it.
At 11:59 p.m., Gillispie strode out onto the court for his postgame radio show. About 300 fans were still there, giving him a rousing round of applause.
In the Hyatt bar before the game, they were doubting everything Gillispie did -- his substitution pattern, his dependency on Meeks and Patterson, even his demeanor with the media.
"I would love to have Billy D instead of Billy G," said one UK fan, who asked that his name not be used. "I hate to say that out loud."
By midnight, they were toasting Billy G at the jammed lobby bar. The Dry Ridge boys, Jeff Ammer and Ed Clemons, were back to their Bud Lights. The pregame tension was long gone.
"This week will be great," Ammer exulted. "It don't matter if the sun shines or not. It can snow 50 inches and it won't matter. In Kentucky, we live basketball."
And hope lives another day.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.