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Eight hours of UK sports, a lifetime of Wildcat history

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By John Herndon

LEXINGTON -- It took just over eight hours, but a lifetime of Kentucky Wildcat sports played itself out Saturday afternoon.

A scheduling quirk put the Wildcat football and men's basketball teams at home on the same day. That surely has not happened more than a handful of times, if at all, in history.

Thanks to the good people in the UK media relations office, more than 40 years of following the Big Blue were compressed into the afternoon and evening hours of Nov. 24.

Let me explain.

The first time I saw a Kentucky team play any sport was back in December of 1966 when my father rounded up tickets for us to see the Wildcat basketball team blow out Oregon State 96-66. Louie Dampier went wild, scoring 30 points that night.

The second UK game I ever saw?

It was a month later when Volunteer Tom Hendrix, a native of Elizabethtown, hit two free throws in the second overtime to send Tennessee past the Wildcats, 52-50.

Being a kid who came up with ingenious schemes to avoid homework on the nights when Cawood Ledford was calling the Cats, I knew in my heart that UK should have won that night and that Ray Mears' orange jacket was just about the ugliest thing my eyes had ever seen.

As of Nov. 28, the last UK sporting event I attended the basketball Cats' 83-35 win over Texas Southern on Saturday night in Rupp Arena. It was a night when Joe Crawford bombed with the precision of Dampier, considered by many to be the greatest long-range bomber in UK history. Crawford hit on 12 of 17 shots, including 4-of-8 from 3-point range.

We will concede that Texas Southern wont be threatening North Carolina for the marquee name to visit Rupp Arena this year, but it was interesting that Tiger coach Robert Moreland's first statement in the post-game news conference was a smiling, "This was our introduction to Kentucky basketball. We were served up and the feast was on."

Kentucky fans expect no less than all-out hustle Rick Robey, meet A.J. Stewart whether the opponent is Texas Southern, Florida or the Final Four. They hear Billy Gillispie lament that four of the Tigers baskets in the second half should have been stopped then chuckle and applaud.

Texas Southern made just five field goals in either half, for crying out loud, but that desire for perfection is reminiscent of Adolph Rupp, who famously blistered a defender at halftime for his lack of defense. His player had scored perhaps eight points and the Wildcats were well on their way to a blowout win. The legend has Rupp saying, "He's going wild on us."

Gillispie is not as colorful but the burning desire to be the best is there.

We're not going to make bold predictions about UK basketball in 2008. There are too many question marks out there and a win over a Texas Southern team that did not even have a coach two months ago can't be much of a barometer, but there were signs that Kentucky basketball as many of us grew to love is on the way back.

A few hours earlier, though, in the next-to-last UK sporting event I have seen, 50 years of Kentucky football played out in the 52-50 loss to Tennessee.

No, not many Kentucky teams over that time frame could even be on the field with the current Wildcats. Andre Woodson and company happens to be one of the most entertaining Kentucky teams ever. Only the heartless could not feel for Keenan Burton, Jacob Tamme and the group of Kentucky seniors that have been called the football version of The Unforgettables.

Those kids who stuck it out through some tough residuals of the Hal Mumme-era only learned Saturday that life can be so cruel.

They have become one of the most loved of any sport in Wildcat history. When the Vols got up 31-14, historic Kentucky would have folded and taken its Big Orange medicine. The current Cats obviously didn't, coming within a few inches of a last-second win for the ages.

They deserved so much better than the inevitable thoughts of Bernie Scruggs, whose pitch was intercepted just as the Cats were driving for a win over Tennessee in 1971, or Ron Steele, the kicker who missed a last second 35-yard field goal two years later.

If anything, though, Saturday's loss more resembled the day 20 years ago when UK had first-and-goal inside the Volunteer 5, only to see Mark Higgs, maybe the best running back in the SEC at the time, not make it to the end zone in four tries.

Saturday, the demons that have cursed Kentucky football might have taken form in a dropped snap from the shotgun that forced Woodson to hurry what could have been a game-winning pass. They might have been UK suddenly playing things close to the vest after Sam Maxwells interception in the second overtime or a failure to get a shoulder on Tennessees Dan Williams to avoid the blocked field goal. There could have been 520 different things, but the bottom line is that Tennessee won its 23rd straight over Kentucky.

And to Kentucky fans, Phil Fulmer's orange was even uglier than anything Ray Mears wore.

This one might have pierced the heart more than LSU's Hail Mary and Marty Moore's Peach Bowl fumble combined. Not because those games didnt matter, but because this one meant so much to a team so loved.

This was Rich Brooks, the man who has shown so much class under pressure, going for another victory that would underscore that he's done things the right way.

It was to be Rafael Little, Wesley Woodyard and Jason Leger, making the statement that they had done the right thing when they spurned other big time schools for the opportunity to build the program at their home state's flagship institution.

This Wildcat football team will be remembered for back-to-back 7-win seasons for the first time in over 30 years. Memorabilia of the wins over Louisville and LSU will be under countless Christmas trees this year. They will go down as one of the most popular in UK history.

But unfortunately, that familiar history repeated its cruel treatment of Kentucky football Saturday afternoon.