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March 20, 2013

NIT: Robert Morris ousts Kentucky, 59-57

MOON, Pa. — John Calipari and Kentucky experienced an entirely different kind of "one-and-done'' in the opening round of the NIT.

A year after cutting down the nets in New Orleans, the defending national champions were cut down in their coach's hometown by Robert Morris, who let a 13-point second-half lead disappear before pulling out a 59-57 victory.

Oh how far - and how quickly - the mighty have fallen.

"If there's any doubters,'' Calipari said, "have at it.''

Kentucky's ugly finish to a disappointing season gave the critics plenty of ammunition.

Disjointed since the loss of center Nerlens Noel to a devastating knee injury a month ago, Kentucky (21-12) looked disinterested and even rattled while playing in a gym that seats 20,000 less than Rupp Arena.

The Wildcats lost six of their final 10 games, including a drubbing at the hands of Tennessee and a loss on the road to a Northeastern Conference school that was a junior college when Calipari was growing up less than a mile away.

Mike McFadden hit two free throws with 8.7 seconds remaining and Kyle Wiltjer's 3-pointer at the horn bounced off the rim, sending students spilling onto the court in the biggest victory in the program's history - and sending the Wildcats into an uncertain offseason.

"This is humbling,'' Calipari said. "They think we're supposed to win 30 a year, 35 a year, go to the Final Four, win a national title.''

Robert Morris (24-10) led almost the entire way, never blinking in a rare visit from one of college basketball's Goliaths. Then again, this isn't the same Kentucky team that roared through the NCAAs behind stars Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

The Colonials were hardly intimidated, taking it to Kentucky from the opening tip. Robert Morris scored the first 10 points and didn't back down. Instead, it was Kentucky that consistently retreated.

"We wanted to show we had no fear that we was playing Kentucky,'' Robert Morris guard Velton Jones said. "Going into the game, we knew we could be physical with them. They were tall, but not physically big. We just wanted to pressure them, let'em know we wasn't going anywhere the whole game.''

The triumph took some of the pain out of a heartbreaking end to the regular season. Robert Morris cruised to the Northeastern Conference title, but lost to Mount St. Mary's in the conference tournament. The defeat dashed the Colonials' hopes of making the NCAAs, though the chance to play Kentucky hardly felt like a letdown.

"It's probably the greatest consolation prize you can possibly have,'' coach Andy Toole said.

Lucky Jones led Robert Morris with 15 points, but was ejected for a flagrant foul on Archie Goodwin with 3:41 to play. Kentucky, which trailed by 13 in the second half, managed to tie it twice but could never grab the lead.

Goodwin scored 18 points for the Wildcats but couldn't stop Kentucky's tumultuous season come to a stunning end.

"They haven't had any discipline all year,'' Calipari said. "We ended on a note we've been talking about (all year). We can't really play (disciplined).''

Calipari was born in Pittsburgh, grew up a couple of miles from the Robert Morris campus and played guard at Moon High a couple of 3-pointers away. He returned to Western Pennsylvania to finish up his college playing at Clarion and served as an assistant coach at Pittsburgh in the 1980s before hitting the big-time.

The homecoming, however, was less happy than hostile.

Fans scooped up the 3,500 tickets in a matter of hours on Monday then lined up outside in the blustery March wind well before tipoff of arguably the biggest game in school history. Robert Morris averaged barely 1,000 fans during its 15 home games, yet there were scalpers asking for $75 to get in the door.

Though disheartened about missing the NCAAs, in a way, it may have served as a blessing.

While the NCAAs would have provided Robert Morris with a brief moment in the sun, the NIT gave the school of just over 3,600 undergraduate students an opportunity to host a program that would never otherwise have made the trip.

It ended in a victory that may have been sweeter than any they could have had in the Big Dance.

"It's probably the greatest consolation prize you can possibly have,'' coach Andy Toole said.

 

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