Long before John Calipari returned Kentucky to power, he left an indelible mark on Morgantown, W.Va.
Last Tuesday marked the 20-year anniversary of what remains one of the greatest comebacks — or collapses, depending on your perspective — in the history of NCAA basketball.
And the Moon native remembers it clearly.
“My high school coach, Bill Sacco, was sitting on the bench,” Calipari said Friday. “We’re down 18 points with four minutes or so left, and I look at him and said, ‘Don’t ever plan on sitting on our bench again.’ He smiled.”
No one could have imagined what happened next.
West Virginia led visiting UMass, 80-62, with 4:48 to play and were well on their way to upsetting Calipari’s top-ranked Minutemen and future All-American Marcus Camby on Jan. 27, 1995.
But UMass fought back to force overtime, eventually winning 97-94 in an outcome that prompted disgusted fans among the 13,862 at sold-out WVU Coliseum — the Mountaineers’ largest home crowd in 12 years — to throw “ice, beer, water, cups and Frisbees” onto the court, according to a Boston Globe report.
“I remember … their students came out of the stands and circled the court getting ready to storm it,” Calipari said. “We missed a shot in regulation to win the game, and you could just hear the crowd all sigh, and then they all walked back into the seats.”
Even the TV announcers had written off the Minutemen. Later, when Calipari, then a seventh-year coach at UMass, and his staff listened to the replay they heard Digger Phelps saying, “The No. 1 team in the country is going down. Stick a fork in ’em.”
UMass, led by senior guard Mike Williams, went on a 20-4 run over a 3:22 span to cut the deficit to 84-82. Later, Williams was fouled while attempting a 3-pointer with 9.1 seconds left. He made his first two free throws and missed the third, but forward Dana Dingle tipped in the miss, tying the game at 86-86 and forcing overtime.
Williams’ 3-pointer with 16.5 seconds to play in OT proved to be the winner.
“It was probably the best comeback of my career and the most memorable game as well,” said UMass forward Lou Roe, who scored a game-high 25 points and now works on Minutemen coach Derek Kellogg’s staff.
To this day, the 18-point comeback matches the largest in NCAA history with less than five minutes to play.
“It didn’t seem like it was real when it first happened,” said David Liguori, a reserve guard for WVU and now a Canonsburg-based financial advisor. “I don’t think I ever heard the Coliseum that quiet. It was probably the toughest loss I’ve ever been involved with, and I’ve got a couple teammates who would say the same thing.”
The near-miss came 24 days after UMass blew out WVU, 95-65, with an Atlantic 10 record 20 blocked shots — the Mountaineers were in their final season in the A-10.
Afterward, WVU coach Gale Catlett focused on his team’s effort in the rematch rather than the historic collapse.
“I’ve never been more proud of a team than ours,” Catlett said after the game. “If you want to blame someone, blame the coach.”
UMass would finish the season 29-5 after losing to Oklahoma State in the Elite Eight. West Virginia ended up 13-13, one of only five non-winning seasons in 24 years under Catlett.
So, as Calipari’s undefeated Kentucky Wildcats continue their pursuit of perfection, he probably will never coach in another game like that Friday night comeback two decades ago in Morgantown.
“It was unbelievable,” said former WVU guard Cyrus Jones, who scored 21 points and now is the coach at Dunbar High in Baltimore. “They were the No. 1 team in the nation. We had an opportunity to make history. We made it, but on the wrong side.”
Friars guard gets it Dunn
When Providence sophomore Kris Dunn recorded the first triple-double in the Big East in six years Thursday, Friars coach Ed Cooley wasn’t surprised.
“It just was a matter of time,” Cooley told reporters after Dunn recorded 27 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists in an 83-72 win over DePaul.
Dunn finally is starting to realize his potential. The 6-foot-3 point guard was a five-star recruit out of New London, Conn., turning down UConn and Louisville. But he played only four games last year before needing season-ending surgery on a troublesome shoulder.
He proved he’s back with the first triple-double for a Friar in a Big East game, and the first by any Big East player since UConn’s Hasheem Thabeet in 2008. Dunn set career highs in points and rebounds in the game.
For the season, he is averaging 15.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 2.5 steals. He leads the Big East in assists and steals.
The Friars (16-6, 6-3) play at No. 24 Georgetown (15-6, 7-3) on Wednesday. Dunn and senior forward LeDontae Henton, the Big East’s top scorer at 20.4 points per game, are trying to lead Providence back to the NCAA Tournament after making it last season for the first time in 10 years.
“When you see stats like that, it’s pretty eye opening,” Cooley said of Dunn after the DePaul win. “If you look at his last five or six games, he’s been a free throw, an assist, a couple of rebounds (away). He’s been trending (toward a triple-double). That definitely won’t be the last one in a Friar uniform.”
Seven weeks ago, Tulsa was 5-5 under first-year coach Frank Haith and coming off losses to D-II Southeastern Oklahoma State and a 19-point home blowout by Oklahoma.
That was then.
The Golden Hurricane (16-5, 9-0) have won 11 in a row, including a 78-71 overtime victory against USF on Saturday. They are in first place in the American, their first year in the league, and off to their best conference start in at least 30 years. In the latest ESPN Bracketology, Tulsa is a No. 11 seed.
“I think guys are just getting better,” Haith said after the USF win. “We’re just working hard. We’ve got tough-minded kids. … They are allowing us to coach them, but they’re doing the work, so they deserve a lot of the credit.”
A pair of junior guards, Shaquille Harrison and James Woodard, rank third and fourth, respectively, in scoring in the backcourt-heavy American.
It is an impressive renewal for Haith, who left an SEC program, Missouri, to replace Danny Manning after the former Kansas All-American departed for Wake Forest.
Haith’s teams at Missouri disappointed in the postseason and his days in Miami were tainted by an NCAA investigation. But he seems to have found a new home, with defending NCAA champion UConn, SMU, Memphis and Cincinnati looking up at Tulsa in the standings.
John Grupp is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @JohnGrupp_Trib