You know what usually happens when a former Kentucky player returns to Rupp Arena as the coach for an opposing team, right? You know what he can expect at his own Homecoming?
He’ll be announced, get a nice round applause of nostalgia from Big Blue Nation, especially if he did something memorable back in his Wildcat years. Then the game will start, and the pounding often begins. So much for the good old days. Kyle Macy, an enduring Kentucky hero in the 1970s, brought Morehead State in three times and went 0-3 by an average margin of 29.7 points. John Pelphrey, one of Pitino’s main guys on his early teams, arrived back in Lexington one night with Arkansas. The final was 101-70. Nice to see you again, John.
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Which is why Walter McCarty knows how difficult Tuesday will be.
There is something magical when a Kentucky man brings his own team back to Rupp Arena. Something foreboding, too. Walter McCarty? Second-year coach at Evansville. Once upon a time, he was a mainstay on Rick Pitino’s national championship Wildcats. Matter of fact, the last game in Rupp Arena that saw McCarty taking an active role was Senior Night in 1996 – a 101-63 dismantling of Vanderbilt that included his 13 points.
And two years before that, he hit the shot that cemented his Lexington legacy — a 3-pointer in Baton Rouge that capped off Kentucky’s historic rally from 31 points behind in the second half to beat LSU 99-95. At that time, it was the biggest comeback in Division I history. So yeah, McCarty has a name in Rupp Arena.
But Tuesday night, he’s in the way. Good luck.
"It was one of those unforgettable moments, being a player there, that being a really important part of my life," McCarty said. "To be able to take my team there, I’m first very thankful they’ll be able to have this experience."
Evansville is 1-0 after a 79-75 opening win over Ball State. The Aces went 11-21 in McCarty’s first season. This will be his message to his players about Tuesday:
"Obviously these are moments to dream of as a kid. It's going to be an opportunity to have a chance to do something really historic. I’m going to tell them to take advantage and enjoy the moment. We’re a small school going against a giant, and not much is expected of us. It’s should be fun. This is one of those fairy tale stories. Who knows what could happen?"
Well, some sobering numbers suggest what might happen.
John Calipari’s Kentucky teams are 168-9 in Rupp Arena. They’re 148-4 vs. unranked opponents. McCarty understands what it's like for Lexington visitors. He was 38-2 at home as a Wildcat player.
"I’m definitely going to let my team know that, how tough it’s going to be and the odds that are stacked against us," McCarty said. "But I’m hoping that makes it even a better experience."
A few notable things about Tuesday night.
Evansville and Kentucky have never played, even though you can almost reach the Bluegrass State from Evansville with a driver. "Right across the river," said McCarty, who grew up a high school star in Evansville, watching Kentucky games on television. That familiarity is one reason he headed for Lexington. The Wildcats have played 293 different opponents in their long history, from Abilene Christian to Yale, with Fort Knox, the New Albany YMCA and the Phillips Oilers in between. But never the school separated from the commonwealth by only the Ohio River. "Talk about the proximity. Evansville has had some really good teams. For them to never play once is pretty incredible."
For extra flavor, Kentucky will likely be No. 1. Evansville has played only two top-ranked opponents ever — North Carolina in 2008 and DePaul in 1980.
Something else. It’s fitting McCarty should return to Kentucky in 2019, this calendar year being the 25th anniversary of the go-ahead basket in what became known as the Mardi Gras Miracle.
Feb. 15, 1994. LSU led Kentucky 48-32 at halftime and went on an 18-0 run to go up 68-37 with 15:34 left. Game over in Baton Rouge, right? Wrong. The Wildcats started making 3-pointers and the Tigers started missing free throws, and the lead melted by the final minute. With 19 seconds left, McCarty buried the 3-pointer that made it 96-95 and swung the game for good. They never forget feats like that in Kentucky.
"People always want to talk about it," he said. "To me it was just one of those moments. The play was drawn up for Tony Delk. They collapsed on Tony, he passes to me and I pass it right back, and go like . . . run the play."
But the ball came back to McCarty, and there he was in the corner in front of the Kentucky bench, with his own team hollering for him to put it up.
"They left me open and I took the shot, and the rest is in the books. Everywhere I go people are always asking and talking about it, so I guess there’s no better way (to be remembered). It would be bad if I missed it and everybody remembered that, so I guess it’s really fortunate that I made it and a lot of people are excited about it."
Last month is ancient history to your average 20-year old, so the team of kids McCarty will take to Lexington Tuesday night might not understand all their coach did last century. But they’ll be able to see the 1996 championship banner well enough. In McCarty’s last college game — before a long NBA career — he scored four points to help the Wildcats win the title against Syracuse.
"Hopefully going back to Lexington, and being there, maybe they’ll understand and get a little taste of what it was like for me and how much fun and how important it was, and what kind of team I was able to play on. Hopefully this trip gives them a sneak peek," he said. "(The championship) gives me a little credibility. We’re setting goals, that we have a great opportunity to do something special. I was very fortunate to be able to do that, and we do talk about that a lot."
By the way, he still has the ring from ’96.
"I’ll have it on come Tuesday night."