Evansville Shocks #1 Kentucky


Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

K.J. Riley celebrates with his teammates after Evansville upsets #1 Kentucky at Rupp Arena.

By Jack Woodard, Sports Editor

Last night, the Evansville Purple Aces basketball team pulled off one of the greatest upsets of all time in a 67-64 win against #1 Kentucky.  Kentucky had a 52 game win streak against unranked, non-conference opponents and Evansville shattered that streak.  

Kentucky came into this game ranked as the number one team in the country with a 2-0 record.  They were predicted to win the SEC before the season and were considered by many to be a favorite for the National Championship.  With players like star freshman Tyrese Maxey, 6’11 big man Nick Richards, and experienced graduate transfer Nate Sestina from Bucknell, how could they not be a favorite early in the season?  The Wildcats beat previous number one Michigan State 69-62 and destroyed Eastern Kentucky 91-49 for their first two wins of the year, however, they may have looked past their next opponent: the Evansville Purple Aces.

Evansville comes out of the respectable Missouri Valley Conference which produced teams like Creighton (now in the Big East) and Wichita State (now in the American) and currently has the likes of Northern Iowa (appearances in 2010 Sweet Sixteen, 2015 and 2016 Round of 32), Loyola Chicago (appearance in the 2018 Final four), and Bradley (played Michigan State close in last year’s tournament as a 15 seed).  Missouri State was picked as the favorite to win the conference this year and Evansville was picked to come in 8th. People may want to rethink that prediction after last night’s game. Evansville is led by senior K.J. Riley who is an absolutely explosive guard. The Purple Aces came into this game 1-0 after edging out Ball State 79-75. Surely this would not be a close game, how could the number one team in the country who is favored by 25 and has a 96.2% chance to win not possibly blow out Evansville at home? 

From the start, Evansville proved that they would not give Kentucky anything easy and pressured every shot from the Wildcats.  Defense was the key for both teams in this game as Evansville forced 13 turnovers and Kentucky forced 14. Evansville shot 38.3% while Kentucky shot just 37%.  Evansville had 38 rebounds and Kentucky had 35. These numbers were very even and that was just what Evansville needed to pull off this upset.  

Kentucky jumped out to an 8-5 lead early and this 3 point lead would be their largest of the game.  Both defenses battled and the two squads traded hard-to-come-by buckets early. Halfway through the first half, Evansville pulled ahead 18-16 and did not look back from there.  The teams went through stretches of minutes where nobody could hit a shot until stifling defense by Evansville and two offensive rebounds led to an Artur Labinowicz layup and a 24-16 Evansville lead.  This was their largest lead of the game. John Calipari took a timeout and Kentucky fans seemed frustrated. This could not keep up, though, as it was only the first half. Wrong. The last 4 minutes of the first half saw an offensive onslaught from both teams as they traded free throws and baskets.  K.J. Riley hit two free throws with 13 seconds left in the half to put Evansville up by 6 and Tyrese Maxey closed out the half for Kentucky with a layup that cut the lead to 4. It was 34-30 at the break.  

Right out of the gates in the second half, Noah Frederking drained a three-pointer for Evansville to put them up 37-30 and this was a statement shot.  The first half was not a fluke, Evansville would continue to fight in the second. Kentucky eventually cut the lead to 2 at 39-37 but Evansville kept pulling back away.  A dunk and a three-pointer gave Evansville another 7 point lead before Tyrese Maxey came back down the court and hit a layup. This seemed to happen throughout the game as Evansville would pull ahead and Kentucky would do just enough to keep them in range.  Maxey hit a three to tie the game at 46 and then Nate Sestina added two free throws to put Kentucky ahead 48-46 with 11:18 to go. The crowd in Rupp Arena got loud as it seemed Kentucky would finally start to pull away, but less than 15 seconds later, Evansville’s Shamar Givance silenced the crowd with a three pointer.  With 8 minutes to go, Kentucky tied the game at 53 on a Nate Sestina basket when K.J. Riley came in clutch (as he did all game with his free throws) and nailed a three pointer that would lead to a 58-53 Evansville lead. The game was coming down to the wire and Kentucky was still losing. At the under 4 timeout, Evansville led 61-57.  After a pair of K.J. Riley free throws and another basket from Riley, the Purple Aces led 65-60 with 1:41 left. The Kentucky fans knew this was urgent and stood on their feet to cheer their Wildcats on but it would not work. With 46 seconds left, Immanuel Quickley made a layup for Kentucky to cut the lead to 65-62 and Evansville lost track of the shot clock on the next possession and turned it over.  There were 13 seconds left and this was Kentucky’s chance. Tyrese Maxey took the ball and charged for the basket instead of attempting a three. He hit it quickly which benefited Kentucky and now they would have to foul with 9 seconds left, trailing 65-64. Sam Cunliffe hit both free throws for Evansville and the Purple Aces led by 3 with 6.8 seconds left. Tyrese Maxey took the ensuing inbound across halfcourt and immediately pulled up for a deep three-pointer to tie.  Would it go in? Would the Wildcats force overtime and survive the upset?  No.  The ball didn’t even hit the rim and it was only fitting for K.J. Riley to come up with the rebound as time expired. The Evansville players went crazy when the clock hit zero and they had just pulled off an upset for the ages.

K.J. Riley finished the game with 18 points and 4 rebounds for Evansville.  He was also 8-8 at the line and led his team to a win. DeAndre Williams added 9 points for the Purple Aces and Sam Cunliffe came off the bench to give his team 17 points and 6 rebounds.  Immanuel Quickley played 35 minutes for Kentucky and had a great game with 16 points and 9 rebounds. Tyrese Maxey had 15 points for the Wildcats and Nate Sestina had 9. Nick Richards got in foul trouble for Kentucky and was limited to just 6 points and 6 rebounds.  Evansville hit 9 three-pointers and shot 30% beyond the arc while Kentucky shot just 23.8% from three. Evansville was 12-13 at the line which proved to be huge and Kentucky was 20-25.  

This game was one of the biggest upsets of all time and it makes it even better that Evansville’s coach has ties to Kentucky.  Walter McCarty played for the Wildcats and won a National Championship with them in 1996. Evansville freshman Thomasi Gilgeous-Alexander is also the brother of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the former Kentucky star who led his team to the Sweet Sixteen in 2018.  

This game was supposed to be an easy win for Kentucky and the Wildcats paid the Purple Aces $90,000 as all big teams do when scheduling smaller teams.  It is shocking that Kentucky lost this game and is unheard of for a number 1 team to lose a game to a non-conference opponent like Evansville. This game was truly one for the ages.

“This game is exactly why college basketball is such a great sport.  Any team has a chance to win on any given day,” said senior Michael Joyce. “This is probably up there just behind UMBC over Virginia in the biggest upsets I’ve ever seen.”

This game was a classic and one of the biggest wins in Evansville school history.  For Kentucky, this loss was humbling and they will almost certainly plummet in the national rankings.  It will be interesting to see how both of these teams do as the season goes along. Can Kentucky bounce back and be the team that we all expected them to be?  Can Evansville make an NCAA tournament run and continue to capture the hearts of fans watching? We will certainly find out.