Robert Morris taps its inner Rocky, knocks swagger right out of one-and-done Kentucky
MOON, Pa. – This is what college basketball still can be in a world of one-and-dones and broken conferences and coaches draped in Armani. Yes, there can exist a steamy night in a tiny gym high on a hill by the Pittsburgh airport where the little guy stands strong, the giant topples and a swarm of students clad in red spill from wooden stands and dance on the remains of a national champion.
Never in an eternity could a school like Robert Morris get a team like Kentucky to come to its 3,000-seat Sewall Center, even if this is the hometown of Wildcats coach John Calipari. The dollars wouldn't allow it. And yet by the magic of a broken season, the NIT and the indignity of hated Louisville playing the NCAA tournament on the Wildcats' home court, there were Kentucky's players filing off the bus Tuesday evening, dripping of entitlement and stepping in the smallest locker room they will every see.
Then there they were, hours later, walking away losers in the first round of the NIT after falling 59-57. It's fitting that the first postgame question to Calipari was about when each of his players would say he was going pro.
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Robert Morris coach Andrew Toole did not face such a query. Nobody wondered if his players who won 20 games playing in the overlooked Northeast Conference were going to leave school early. Instead, he gathered them in their locker room beneath the stands and told them about a movie made long before they were born.
John Calipari had picked them, he said. Once it was certain the Wildcats weren't going to the NCAAs – and because of the tournament games being played this week in Rupp Arena – they knew they were going on the road in the NIT, and the Kentucky coach selected his hometown school as his choice opponent. He wanted them. He was giving them a shot at destiny.
Toole continued, telling his players that this situation was reminiscent of a movie about a boxer named Apollo Creed, who picked a hardscrabble nobody named Rocky Balboa. And just like Rocky, who fought and fought and fought until he finally vanquished the mighty Apollo Creed in "Rocky II," they too would beat Kentucky.
"I guess that was the motivating factor for us," Robert Morris forward Russell Johnson said.
"Come on, everyone knows Rocky," guard Karvel Anderson said as he stood on the court, still in his uniform, long after the fans had left.
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Off in Dayton, the NCAA was going through a contrived series of play-in games that is supposed to suffice for excitement in a sport with few national stars. But the real joy was here, where the basketball still felt real, and the Northeast Conference banners of Central Connecticut and Quinnipiac and Monmouth mocked the Kentucky players. Toole told his team to not be intimidated by the Kentucky name. He told them they were tougher and hungrier and could fight with anyone. He was sure they believed him.
Then, as the Wildcats warmed up, Toole noticed something else. The Kentucky players weren't as big as he thought. Their arms didn't ripple with muscles. Aside from 7-foot center Willie Cauley-Stein, his players were just as big, maybe even bigger.
Suddenly the Rocky analogy wasn't a locker room story told on a whim – he too believed his team could win.
So, yes, there can still be a night like this, a night away from the glaring eye of the NCAAs where last year's national champion could be forced to play in a 3,000-seat gym. And yes, the Kentucky players looked as if they wanted to be anywhere but Moon, Pa. on the night the big tournament began. But after falling behind 10-0, they did fight. They did storm back in the final minutes and they did seethe with rage when Robert Morris forward Lucky Jones took out one of their super freshmen Archie Goodwin with a vicious foul.
Only it wouldn't be enough. Even after Jones was ejected and had to walk away from one of the biggest games of his life, Apollo Creed couldn't beat Rocky. Kentucky's season ended on a missed three-pointer by Kyle Wiltjer.
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The ensuing few minutes were college basketball at its core. The Robert Morris players danced. The fans swarmed them on the court. And from the locker room appeared Lucky Jones, who ran into the stands and hugged his mother Vicki.
"I did it," he told her.
She wanted to joke: "you weren't even out there for the final five minutes." Instead she hugged him and then later said: "Robert Morris has a lot of quick guys out there and given the opportunity they can take it to the other team."
Across the gym, in a room three stories off the floor, Calipari looked a mixture of disgusted and relieved. As much as he loved last year's version of the Wildcats, filled with a lineup of players off to the NBA, he seemed to despise this one just as much.
"The program got hijacked," he said. "I can't believe the stuff I had to put up with."
"This was humbling," he said moments later about the season.
"We will be a hard-nosed team next year," he added. "I can't sit through this again."
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Then he was off to greet old friends and neighbors, sign autographs and laugh in the hallway. He dropped names. He seemed glad to be rid of the team that never came together. Outside, in the cold, the engine of the team's motor coach churned. His players, just thrown by him under a proverbial bus, headed slowly to the real one. It was a moment none of them could have imagined just months before when they started the season No. 3 in the nation.
Neither could the Robert Morris Colonials, who still stalked their home floor. Several of them had cramped during the game, something they don't normally do. But Toole had told them to pour everything they had into this one great moment. And so they had.
"I guess you could say we emptied our tanks out there," Anderson said.
Just as they should on the night when college basketball was good again.
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