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COLUMBUS — Twenty-three years ago, Alabama-Birmingham shocked the college basketball world by upsetting Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
That victory put coach Gene Bartow's Blazers on the map in only their third year of Division I competition and earned them a trip to the Sweet 16.
The two teams hadn't faced each other again — until yesterday — and the circumstances were eerily similar to 1981.
Mo Finley made sure the underdogs won again.
The 5-11 senior guard hit a 17-foot jump shot with 12.2 seconds remaining, leading the ninth-seeded Blazers to a stunning 76-75 victory that knocked the top-seeded Wildcats out of the NCAA tournament at Nationwide Arena.
“It was like David vs. Goliath, and we were David,” UAB coach Mike Anderson said. “And David delivered a mighty blow.”
It was a mighty blow indeed, easily the biggest upset of the tournament so far. And it came in front of a crowd of 19,588 that was predominantly cheering for Kentucky.
“It's pretty unbelievable,” said Finley, who led UAB with 17 points. “I don't know if it can get any better than this. To beat the team considered the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament is a great feeling.”
The shot heard 'round the country sends UAB to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1982. The Blazers will face Kansas in the St. Louis Regional.
“I take my hat off to UAB,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. “They did what they had to do down the stretch to pull it out.”
Kentucky's Gerald Fitch missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds left and Kelenna Azubuike's tip rolled off the rim just before the final horn.
“I had a pretty good look,” Fitch said. “That's a shot I'm supposed to make. I just didn't make it.”
Columbus hasn't been kind to the Wildcats (27-5). The last time Kentucky played an NCAA tournament game in Ohio's capital city was in 1970, when the Wildcats lost to Artis Gilmore-led Jacksonville in the Mideast Regional in St. John Arena.
“To win a game against a great Kentucky, with guys nobody believed should have been in the tournament, I just get emotional thinking about it,” Anderson said.
UAB, which earned a share of the Conference USA regular-season title, earned its first NCAA tournament victory since 1986 by outlasting eighth-seeded Washington 102-100 in the opening round Friday.
The Blazers showed right away yesterday that they were not in awe of heavily favored Kentucky, which has won more games than any team in college basketball (1,876), captured seven national championships and made a record 45 NCAA tournament appearances.
Utilizing a “40 minutes of Hell” attack that Anderson learned under Nolan Richardson at Arkansas — Richardson was in the stands yesterday — UAB took it to the Wildcats from the outset.
“It's a mirror image of the Razorbacks, the way the Blazers are playing,” Smith said. “Nobody likes it. It's tough. It's 40 minutes of intense pressure, attacking. They all put it on the floor, they all beat you off the dribble, they put you in uncomfortable positions.”
The Blazers made the Wildcats feel very uncomfortable in the first half. They led by as many as 13 points in the opening 20 minutes and held a 42-33 lead at the intermission as eight different players scored. Guard Carldell Johnson led the way with nine and Finley added eight. They also combined to make 5 of 7 3-pointers.
Kentucky trailed by as many as 10 four times in the second half, but a 15-4 run gave the Wildcats a 59-58 lead with 9:29 left. The lead changed hands a few more times down the stretch before Azubuike's dunk put Kentucky up 75-74 with 29 seconds left.
That set the stage for Finley's heroics. He pointed skyward soon after the ball went through the net.
“That shot was a blessing from above,” he said.
No one could argue.
Contact Ron Musselman at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6474.37.94458 -83.36066