Just under a year later, Kentucky returns to Colonial Life Arena
In college basketball, the upset of a No. 1 team rarely carries much significance. Top-ranked teams tend to be similar to Saddam Hussein statues in Iraq during the summer of 2003 — they all come crashing down at some point. It's already happened once this season. It occurred six times last season and eight the year before that.
Being No. 1 doesn't truly matter in college basketball until the season is complete. Getting to the top and falling doesn't mean the ultimate goal of a national championship is dead. It isn't like college football, where a loss as the No. 1 team almost always means a chance at the national title is lost as well. But, here's the funny thing: Little else in college athletics provides the intensity, excitement, publicity and pure euphoria of No. 1 getting knocked off on the hardwood.
South Carolina fans can attest to that — 361 days ago today, they found themselves storming the floor while the top team in the land headed home, defeated.
Tomorrow night at 6 p.m., UK will return to Columbia and Colonial Life Arena for the first time since being ranked No. 1 and falling to the Gamecocks 68-62 last season.
On paper, the game on Jan. 26, 2010, looked like a mismatch. Kentucky, newly christened No. 1, was 19-0. USC was 11-8. The Wildcats were full of projected NBA draft lottery picks. USC had lost two of its best three players for the season.
"Not at all," said third-year psychology student Caroline Mayer when asked if she thought USC would win. "I went with some girlfriends, just thinking it was going to be a normal game, never thinking we were going to win."
When fans arrived at the arena and saw the heralded Wildcats up close, the concerns only grew.
"Their shortest guy was taller than our tallest guy. I said, 'Oh, this isn't good,'" said third-year business student Anthony Berkos.
However, the expected never materialized. But then again, maybe the unexpected should've actually been expected, giving the foreshadowing that occurred prior to tipoff.
On the afternoon of the game, UK coach John Calipari and his team held a teleconference with President Barack Obama, who wished to thank the team for its work in raising money for victims of the massive earthquake that devastated the nation of Haiti two weeks earlier. The conversation turned to basketball, though, and the president complimented the Wildcats for all they had done so far before issuing a warning.
"There is a tendency once you get to No. 1 to start to let down a little bit," Obama said.
Whether you agree with the man's politics and policies or not, you have to admit it — he was onto something. USC fans soon figured that out as the game went along. Despite having John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and the rest of its merry band of future pros, Kentucky wasn't putting the Gamecocks away.
"Even when they had a run, we still would come back," Berkos said.
Eventually, the Gamecocks came back and took the lead for good. As the buzzer sounded, the sea of humanity hit the court to dance to "Sandstorm" and celebrate the win.
"We weren't even going to rush the court because we knew there were fines, but everyone from behind us [did], so we had to go with the crowd," Mayer said. "We had to. Everyone was pushing us."
Berkos and his roommate, second-year marine science student Kevin Dennis, weren't able to rush the floor because they were too far up in the stands. But that didn't dampen the night for them, especially Dennis, who was attending his first Carolina basketball game after transferring to USC.
"It was a whole new experience," Dennis said. The buzz carried over into the next day as well. "There was excitement. Everyone was talking about it," Dennis said. "People who went to the game were rubbing it in the faces of people who didn't get tickets. People who didn't get to go were disappointed."
Another fan who was unable to rush the court was 2006 graduate Jon Jacob, who was sitting in the upper deck. He didn't mind, though; being up high gave him a unique vantage point of watching the game with numerous UK fans.
"The Kentucky fans were pretty confident coming into the game, bordering on obnoxious," Jacob said. "But they got gradually quieter as [Devan] Downey took over. Then they just started getting irritated at their own team. All of it was music to the ears of the few Gamecock fans around them."
As is the nature of No. 1 upsets, the game ended up being of little consequence. Kentucky recovered to win the SEC and advance to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. South Carolina tired down the stretch and finished under .500 for the season. The game would be brought back into the spotlight here and there — by a highlight on television, a reviewing on the ESPN and SEC websites or a poorly received Student Government letter to its counterpart in Lexington. For the most part, though, the world moved on.However, memories don't move on. USC fans will forever have the ones made on that night in January. In the big picture, to them, that is all that matters.