BY MARK HOUSER
Poor John Calipari. The former Moon Area High School junior prom king had about as awful a homecoming as a person can imagine.
Just one year removed from seeing his Kentucky Wildcats cut down the nets in the Louisiana Superdome, the legendary coach had watched his team bumble its way through a lackluster season to become one of the very few teams in Division I basketball history to miss the NCAA Tournament a year after winning it all.
A top seed in the NIT tournament was barely a consolation for Calipari, and it quickly turned more sour. Kentucky's princely Rupp Arena was booked for the NCAA Tournament first round, so the "home team" Wildcats would have to come play at the visitors' house, Sewall Center — which has about 20,000 fewer seats.
For the Robert Morris Colonials and their fans, it was a chance to forget a dispiriting home loss the week before that bounced them from the NEC playoffs and the NCAA Tournament. For one improbable night, an elite program was coming to town, led by a hometown boy, no less. With March Madness fever building but the tournament still a couple days away, the national media focused on Moon Township.
ESPN brought its A-team. A first-time sellout crowd of 3,500 "Packed the Chuck." As far as coach Andy Toole was concerned, it was "probably the greatest consolation prize you can possibly have."
Then came tipoff. The crowd roared as the Colonials got the first basket. Roared louder as they took a 10-0 lead. Louder still as the underdogs fought off a Kentucky run and took a 28-27 lead into the locker room at halftime. And when the Colonials tore ahead by 13 in the second, and Sewall's wood bleachers seemed tested to the limits of their structural integrity, fans began to wonder in the booming, overheated gym if this was all really about to happen.
Of course Kentucky fought back to tie it in the last minute. But then Mike McFadden coolly dropped two free throws for the Colonials, and the final three-point attempt by the Wildcats at the buzzer clanged out. Pandemonium. RMU 59 – Kentucky 57.
And give Calipari credit — the hometown boy with the big-time program was gracious in defeat. "This is a shot in the arm for them and they deserve to win the game," he said. "If we'd have won at the buzzer, it would have been a shame."
Luckily, that's one "what-if" the Colonials will never have to ask.
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