As Evansville’s K.J. Riley and his teammates rode the bus back to campus following Tuesday night’s 67-64 upset of No. 1 Kentucky in Lexington, coach Walter McCarty told his energized team to quiet down because Charles Barkley wanted to congratulate it.
He put the TNT analyst and Hall of Famer on speakerphone.
“I didn’t even know he knew Charles Barkley,” said Riley, who led all scorers with 18 points. “He congratulated us and he told us that the hard work is paying off.”
Overall, McCarty said he had 400 congratulatory text messages waiting for him after Tuesday’s win, which was tied for the third-largest upset in college basketball over the last 15 seasons (Evansville was a 25-point underdog), per ESPN Stats & Information.
Rick Pitino, McCarty’s coach when Kentucky won the national title in 1996, reached out. Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing, McCarty’s teammate when he played for the New York Knicks during the 1996-97 season, texted him to praise his team, too. Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan, an assistant when McCarty was at Kentucky, also contacted him after the victory.
Sam Cunliffe’s two free throws with 6.8 seconds to play sealed the win for Evansville as Kentucky’s Tyrese Maxey missed a deep 3-pointer at the buzzer to tie the game. Kentucky made just 37 percent of its field goal attempts and committed 11 turnovers in the first half.
Kentucky had previously won 52 consecutive home games against unranked opponents. Evansville, picked to finish eighth in the Missouri Valley Conference preseason poll, finished 11-21 overall and 5-13 during the 2018-19 campaign, McCarty’s first as the team’s head coach.
It was the program’s first victory over a No. 1 team.
ESPN’s BPI gave Evansville a 4 percent chance to win.
McCarty said his team’s experience fueled the win. He said he told his team that it could win at Kentucky, where he won a multitude of games as a player, if it stood strong in the opening minutes and refused to allow the crowd to become a factor.
“They were not going to get rattled,” he said. “They weren’t afraid. Nothing against Kentucky, but they’re young. It feels good that people are paying attention to us.”
When they returned to campus, the Purple Aces were greeted by hundreds of students. Riley said he didn’t get to bed until 2 a.m. He was also inundated with texts. One in particular surprised him.
“It was from a Kentucky fan,” Riley said. “He said, ‘I’m a Kentucky fan but you’re my favorite player now.'”