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A Dark Night in Kentucky

Feb. 21, 1994
Feb. 21, 1994

Table of Contents
Feb. 21, 1994

Bicycling
College Basketball
The Winter Olympics
SI 40th Anniversary
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Focus
Outdoors
Boxing
Point After

A Dark Night in Kentucky

In 1955, Georgia Tech ended the Wildcats' 129-game home winning streak

College Basketball has several records that probably will never be broken, among them UCLA's seven consecutive national championships, former Bruin coach John Wooden's 10 national titles in 12 years and Pete Maravich's scoring average of 44.2 points a game during his career at Louisiana State. But the safest record of all must be Kentucky's 129-game home court winning streak, which began after a 45-40 loss to Ohio State on Jan. 2, 1943, and lasted until a 59-58 loss to Georgia Tech on Jan. 8, 1955. The Tech coach in '55 was John (Whack) Hyder, now 81 and still living in Atlanta. "We caught Kentucky off guard that night," Hyder says. "It was the first time I ever saw grown people cry over a basketball loss. They just sat there, too shocked to move."

This is an article from the Feb. 21, 1994 issue Original Layout

As the Georgia Tech coach from 1951 through '73, Hyder had a respectable, 292-271 record. Still, he'll always be remembered for that one victory that proved to college basketball coaches that Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp and his Wildcat teams were mortal after all. During the years of its home court streak, Kentucky had emerged as the colossus of the college game, winning NCAA championships in 1948, '49 and '51. The Wildcats also won the NIT in 1946 and had a 25-0 team in 1953-54 that did not participate in postseason play. (During the season three players were found to be ineligible for the tournament, and the school decided that it would skip the postseason.) After winning 84 consecutive home games in Alumni Gym, they moved into a new arena—11,500-seat Memorial Coliseum—in 1950 and won their first 45 games there.

The season before the upset, Kentucky played Georgia Tech twice, winning the first game by 52 points and the second by 51. Although they had lost Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey and Lou Tsioropoulos from their unbeaten squad of the previous season, the Wildcats were still considered talented enough to manhandle Tech, which entered Lexington's Memorial Coliseum on that historic Saturday night in January 1955 with a 2-4 record, including a loss to Sewanee in its preceding game. In fact, the game was expected to be so one-sided in favor of Kentucky that the play-by-play announcer, Cawood Ledford, who was then in the second year of a 39-year career, devoted much of his pregame preparation to boning up on the Wildcat substitutes. They were likely to get plenty of playing time.

"A lot of people in the crowd that night had never seen Kentucky lose," Hyder says. "The games weren't on TV in those days, and the fans didn't travel with the teams like they do now."

The Kentucky players admitted later that they were looking past the Yellow Jackets to a home game scheduled two days later against highly regarded DePaul. The result: an uninspired Kentucky performance that enabled Georgia Tech to gain confidence as the game unfolded. Early in the second half, to the disbelief of Rupp and the crowd of 11,000, the Yellow Jackets led by as much as eight points. Then Kentucky woke up, as everyone knew it would; the Wildcats moved to a 58-55 lead with 1:12 remaining. Even after guard Bobby Kimmel made two free throws to cut the lead to 58-57, nobody thought that Tech would be able to pull out a win.

With 18 seconds to go, Billy Evans, Kentucky's captain, took an inbounds pass from fellow guard Gayle Rose. Under pressure from Kimmel, Evans lost the ball to Tech's double-teaming Joe Helms, who at 5'9" was the smallest player on the floor. Helms went down the court and canned a 12-foot jumper with 12 seconds left to give Tech the lead. In the final seconds Kentucky got off two shots—a jumper by Linville Puckett and a tip by Phil Grawemeyer—but neither of them went down. When the final horn sounded, the crowd sat frozen, not believing what it had just seen.

"I remember losing the ball," says Evans, now an executive with Kentucky Fried Chicken in Louisville, "but what I remember most is the total silence when it was over. Just nothing. It took people awhile before they finally got up and started filing out."

The only noise came from the Tech players, who celebrated so boisterously that Kimmel, a hero from Valley High in nearby Louisville, suffered a cut above his eye. What made the upset even more amazing was that Hyder had used only five players. Besides Kimmel and Helms, they were Lenny and Bill Cohen (not related) and Dick Lenholt. "We just had a bunch of scrawny kids who went out and battled," Hyder says. "We flew home that night, and I remember there was a crowd waiting for us at the airport, something that had never happened to a Georgia Tech basketball team."

Back in Lexington, Rupp was almost in shock. "He didn't rant and rave too much in the locker room," recalls John Brewer, a Kentucky reserve who is now an executive with a St. Louis scrap-metals firm. However, according to Brewer, Rupp did say to the players in his most solemn voice, "From this time until history is no longer recorded, you will be remembered as the team that broke that string. Even if you go on to win the NCAA championship, you must carry this scar with you the rest of your lives."

After the game, Evans went to the movies at the Ashland Theater in Lexington. As he sat there in the darkness, he remembers, people were whispering about the defeat as they took their seats. "The word was spreading that Kentucky had lost," he says. The Sunday newspapers gave it the Pearl Harbor treatment. Ed Ashford of the Lexington Herald-Leader called Helms's winning basket "the shot that was heard around the basketball world," and Tev Laudeman of the Louisville Courier-Journal wrote, "It was the night the mouse ate the cat."

The next afternoon's practice, as both Evans and Brewer recall it, was especially rugged, which probably had a lot to do with Kentucky's 92-59 blowout of DePaul on Monday. And once the shock wore off in Lexington, Tech's victory was thought to be such a fluke that Wildcat fans began looking forward to the rematch 23 days later in Atlanta.

Kentucky failed to avenge its earlier defeat, however, and Tech won again, 65-59. Those losses turned out to be the only blots on Kentucky's record heading into the NCAA tournament, in which the Wildcats were upset by Marquette in their first game.

From that season on, Hyder seemed to have a way of getting under Rupp's skin, just as Babe McCarthy of Mississippi State and Ray Mears of Tennessee did in Rupp's later years. By 1964, when Kentucky and Tech stopped playing each other because of the Yellow Jackets' defection from the Southeastern Conference, Hyder's record against Rupp was 9-16, much better than the records of most other rivals of the Kentucky coach.

To this day Hyder is quick to point out that he won six of his last 10 games against Rupp. "I don't know exactly why," Hyder says, "but we seemed to have more luck against him than others did, even some of the teams that were better than we were."

When Rupp retired in 1972, he had 875 victories, still the Division I record. Hyder says that he didn't like Rupp at first because of the way the Wildcats clobbered his teams in their first few meetings but that he and Rupp became friends after the shocker of '55. When the ailing Rupp went to Atlanta to address the national coaches' convention in 1977, Hyder took him to all his meals and looked after him. A few months later Rupp died.

"He did more than anybody for basketball in the South," Hyder says. "In fact, I think they made one mistake when they built that 23,000-seat arena in Lexington and named it after him. They should have set up a seat at midcourt, about three or four rows up, and blocked it off. Then they could tell everyone who comes in, 'Coach Rupp sits here.' That way he would always be there when Kentucky plays a game."

PHOTOHUGH STOVALL/ATLANTA JOURNALThe jubilant Yellow Jackets swarmed around Hyder after stinging mighty Kentucky 59-58.PHOTOHUGH STOVALL/ATLANTA JOURNALHyder (left) used only five players to show the world that Rupp and the Cats were mortal.PHOTOLOUISVILLE COURIER-HOURNAL[See caption above.]