It was a hard fought game but the Robert Morris Colonials were able to make two free throws in the closing seconds to defeat Kentucky 59-57 in the first round of the NIT.
“Absolutely incredible effort from our guys tonight,” Head Coach Andy Toole said. “We talked about playing to exhaustion and every one of our guys did that tonight. They were tired and they were cramping but we knew what type of effort it would take. I’m proud of the effort and proud of the execution from our guys. We made the plays we had to make to win it in the last two and a half minutes.”
The eighth seeded Colonials got the crowd going early with a 7-0 advantage just 2:30 into the game. The momentum continued as Kentucky struggled on the offensive end. Off of a steal, Robert Morris ran their fast break and Lucky Jones converted a lay-up and was fouled. The team went into the huddle with a fired up Head Coach Andrew Toole.
Kentucky made a bit of a run to cut the Robert Morris lead to 14-8 after being down 10-0 but Coron Williams hit his second three of the game give his team a 17-8 lead heading into the second media timeout.
Kentucky’s size was a huge factor in the game and seven-foot Willie Cauley-Stein was able to rebound the basketball followed by a ferocious dunk.
The Colonials fouled often including a controversial Velton Jones intentional foul which upset the RMU faithful. Archie Goodwin sank all six of his first half free throws to make the game close.
Meanwhile the Robert Morris offense hit a cold streak that took minutes to break. When it did it was a Jones lay-up that ended the bad string.
At the half, Robert Morris held on to a 28-27 lead. They were out-shot 52.9% to 40% from the floor and out-rebounds 14-9.
Velton Jones heated up in the second half, converting his first three shots from the field. Kentucky was staying in the game trailing by three when Lucky Jones hit a three with 14:49 to play. He was fouled on the shot making it a four point play. The RMU momentum continued when the team took a charge. Following a Lucky Jones lay-in the lead was 40-31 forcing Calipari to take a timeout with 13:49 left in the second half.
Robert Morris continued to thrive offensively and a Russell Johnson lay-up put the Colonials up by 10.
Kentucky became sloppy with the basketball trying to go for the big play and failing to finish their dunks. On the other end, Johnson nailed a big three point shot giving his team a 49-38 lead at the second to last media timeout.
Robert Morris slowed their offense in an effort to take time off the clock but their offensive momentum would stop. Kentucky would battle back though as Julius Mays hit a big three and Kyle Wiltjer made his first basket of the game and with 3:52 left, Robert Morris had their lead cut down to 53-49.
On the ensuing Colonials possession, there was a turnover and Lucky Jones fouled in order to prevent the easy lay-up. The problem for him was that it was excessive ruled a flagrant and then after review a flagrant two meaning he was ejected from the game. Both free throws were made and then on the next Wildcats possession the game was tied.
While the ejection was tough for Lucky Jones, Velton Jones made sure to say something to his teammate before he went to the locker room.
“We’ve got you Lucky,” Velton Jones said. “We’ve got to do this for him. To get kick out in a game like this I knew it hurt, but he’s had our back all year and we have his.”
Velton Jones would sink two shots from the line to give RMU a 55-53 lead forcing a Wildcats timeout. Kentucky was unable to convert on the next possession and Jones made a big pass to Mike McFadden for a dunk.
The Wildcats responded with a two and Robert Morris called a timeout with 1:16 left in regulation. After a turnover, Goodwin made a two to square the game again.
Robert Morris called a timeout with 12.3 seconds to play and five seconds on the shot clock. Following a miss, Robert Morris missed a shot but got to the free throw when McFadden was fouled by Willie Cauley-Stein. He sank both free throws to give Robert Morris a 59-57 lead.
“I just kept my composure,” McFadden said. “Everyone came to me and said you’ve got this. I took a deep breath and knocked them down.”
In the closing seconds Kentucky’s Wiltjer’s three point attempt did not fall in and the RMU faithful stormed the court in celebration.
“Robert Morris played a great basketball game,” Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari said. “They just came in and said they cannot withstand our physical toughness. They played a physical, tough, hard-nose basketball. We got down 10-0 and it was just too rough. This is a hard game. One it’s on the road and two how things turned out. They deserved it, it was like the shot in the arm and they deserved it. If we had won at the buzzer it would have been a shame. We didn’t deserve to win the game.”
Toole was elated to just have Kentucky come to the Sewall Center and while upset and not being able to get into the NCAA Tournament, he is on cloud nine right now.
“It’s probably the greatest consolation prize you can get,” Toole said. “Now it’s elevated to the nth degree.”
Of note: Robert Morris was 14-14 from the foul line. “Every point in this game was critical,” Toole said. “It was a huge factor in us winning.”
Robert Morris will face the winner of the Providence vs Charlotte game tomorrow night.
Meanwhile, Kentucky now goes from being national champions to a first round exit in the NIT.
“This was humbling, you think you’re going to win 30 games, get to the semis, get to the finals and then this hits you,” Calipari said. “Two years ago everyone played us [physically] and we said ‘it ‘aint happening’. We never accepted that was an issue. You have to accept it and change how you play.”