COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP)—Some players stared in disbelief while others blinked back tears in Kentucky’s somber locker room.
Outside, the school’s band fought its way through a rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home” as fans in various shades of blue shook their heads and wondered what in the world had gone wrong.
Once again, the Wildcats were going home early from the NCAA tournament.
Mo Finley made a 17-foot jumper with 12.2 seconds left and ninth-seeded Alabama-Birmingham hung on to stun the tournament’s No. 1 seed 76-75 Sunday in the second round of the St. Louis Regional.
Kentucky’s Gerald Fitch missed a 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds left and Chuck Hayes’ tip rolled off the rim just before the final horn, ending the Wildcats season short of their stated goal—an eighth national championship.
“I’m still in shock,” Hayes said. “It’s tough to look at my teammates right now.”
The Wildcats (27-5) followed Stanford’s early exit, leaving Saint Joseph’s and Duke as the remaining top seeds after two rounds of the tourney.
Meanwhile, the Blazers (22-9) advanced to the round of 16 for the first time since 1982 with their second big upset of Kentucky in the NCAA tournament.
UAB will play fourth-seeded Kansas in the round of 16 on Friday.
The Blazers’ win came almost exactly 23 years to the day that they beat Kentucky in the second round of the 1981 tournament—a victory the school had claimed as the turning point in its basketball program, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this season.
This one might just top it.
“It’s pretty unbelievable,” said Finley, a senior. “It feels pretty good right now. That shot definitely was a blessing from above. Hopefully, I’ve got a lot more games left in the tournament, but I don’t know if it can get any better than this.”
Using a “40 minutes of Hell” attack that their coach Mike Anderson learned under Nolan Richardson at Arkansas, the Blazers took it to the Wildcats (27-5) from the outset.
Richardson got to see every second of it, too, cheering and waving his arms in the stands for the Blazers like he was on the sideline coaching the Razorbacks.
“Forty minutes of Hell—Part Two,” Richardson screamed in the middle of UAB’s cheering section that had turned into a mosh pit. “I knew they had a chance.”
Anderson wasn’t so sure. On Saturday, the second-year coach said his team’s best chance at an upset would be if there was a celestial alignment.
Maybe he should take a look at the heavens.
“We knew coming in it was like David vs. Goliath and we were David,” Anderson said. “I’ll tell you what: David swung a mighty blow.”
Cast as the team to beat for the ninth time since 1979, the Wildcats came up short in their quest to bring another trophy back to Rupp Arena.
And this year’s senior class of Fitch, Cliff Hawkins, Erik Daniels and Antwain Barbour, will leave Kentucky without even making a visit to the Final Four.
“That’s a big hole,” he said. “To not reach a Final Four in your career, especially at Kentucky, a school that’s known for national championships.”
Wildcats coach Tubby Smith didn’t make any excuses after being denied a chance to advance.
“I think this team did overachieve in a way, but we could have been better, should have been better, should have been moving on and it just wasn’t our day today.”
Like Alabama’s win over Stanford, UAB’s shocker surely wrecked more than a few office pools. It also gave a state known for football, some bragging right in college hoops.
Kentucky rallied all the way back from a 10-point deficit in the second half and took a 75-74 lead with 29.3 seconds left when Kelenna Azubuike dunked in a miss.
UAB called its last timeout before Finley made the shot that will go down in Blazers’ history.
Dribbling on the right side, the 6-foot-3 senior used a pump fake to get Hayes in the air, and then stepped inside the 3-point arc to drain his jumper.
Kentucky called time to set up a play that ended with Fitch getting a clean look from the left wing. It went off the mark as did Hayes’ attempt and the Blazers bounced off their bench in celebration.
“I thought I had a pretty good look,” Fitch said. “That’s a shot I’m supposed to make—that’s how I feel. I just didn’t make it.”
Finley scored 17 points and Donell Taylor and Gabe Kennedy 13 apiece for the Conference USA regular season co-champs, who had an answer for everything Kentucky threw at them.
Fitch had 17 points and Erik Daniels added 12 for the Wildcats, who after enduring “40 minutes of Hell” will now experience seven months of heated debate by their zealous fans and more regret before they’ll play again.
Donell Taylor and his identical brother, Ronell, combined for the game’s most spectacular play.
With Kentucky on a 3-on-1 break, Ronell stole a pass in the lane near the Wildcats’ basket before blindly flipping the ball over his head to his awaiting brother, whose dunk put UAB up 54-44.
“He steals the ball and throws it over his back,” Anderson said, soaking in the memory. “That’s beautiful basketball, isn’t it?”
Kentucky stormed back and opened a 69-63 lead on a 3-pointer by Fitch with 5:06 left. But the relentless Blazers wouldn’t fold and pulled even at 69-69 when Carldell Johnson stole a pass and found Demario Eddins for a layup with 1:58 left.
Just like pesky 16th-seeded Florida A&M, which gave Kentucky fits for nearly 30 minutes before losing in Friday’s opening round, the Blazers were never intimidated by the Wildcats, their fans or their tradition.
Anderson wouldn’t let them. He knew they’d leave their hearts on the floor— right until the moment they stormed it.
“I may be dreaming,” he said, shaking his head. “But I’m going to keep dreaming.”