The Wildcats decided not to call timeout after the second free throw but Kyle Wiltjer’s 3-pointer before the buzzer bounced harmlessly off the rim, sending hundreds of students onto the court as Robert Morris ruined Kentucky coach John Calipari’s homecoming.
Lucky Jones led the Colonials (24-10) with 15 points but was ejected for a flagrant foul on Archie Goodwin with 3:41 to play. Kentucky, which trailed by 13 in the second half, managed to tie it twice but could never grab the lead.
Goodwin scored 18 points for the Wildcats but couldn’t stop Kentucky’s disappointing season come to a stunning end.
The victory was validation for the Colonials, who won the Northeastern Conference regular season title with ease but were upset in the conference tournament. The loss relegated the school to the NIT, but it hardly felt like a letdown in perhaps the biggest win in the program’s history.
“I know they were disappointed not to get to NCAA tournament. This is a memory they’ll get for rest of their lives.” Robert Morris coach Andy Toole said in the giddy aftermath.
Robert Morris will advance to the second round, while Kentucky’s injury-marred underachieving year came to a merciful end. The Wildcats were never the same after center Nerlens Noel went down with a devastating knee injury. Kentucky dropped six of its final 10 games, the last one coming in a somewhat rickety gym in the Pittsburgh suburbs.
The Wildcats let the Colonials race to an early 10-0 lead, only led briefly at the end of the first half and appeared disinterested to spoil the return of a hometown kid made good.
Calipari was born in Pittsburgh, grew up a couple of miles from the Robert Morris campus and played guard at Moon High a couple of 3-pointers away. He returned to Western Pennyslvania to finish up his college playing at Clarion and served as an assistant coach at Pittsburgh in the 1980s before hitting the big-time.
The homecoming, however, was less happy than hostile.
Fans scooped up the 3,500 tickets in a matter of hours on Monday then lined up outside in the blustery March wind well before tipoff of arguably the biggest game in school history. Robert Morris averaged barely 1,000 fans during its 15 home games, yet there were scalpers asking for $75 to get in the door.
Though disappointed in missing the NCAAs, in a way, it may have served as a blessing.
While the NCAAs would have provided Robert Morris with a brief moment in the sun, the NIT gave the school of just over 3,600 undergraduate students an opportunity to host one of college basketball’s big boys on its own turf.
Kentucky earned a top seed in the NIT but was forced to hit the road because Rupp Arena is hosting NCAA games this weekend. Though Calipari warned his team to be ready, the Wildcats hardly looked thrilled to be there, and it showed.
Robert Morris scored the game’s first 10 points while the Wildcats — who typically play in front of home crowds in excess of 23,000 — stumbled their way through a series of miscues and appeared rattled in a gym with wooden bleachers that swayed underneath the feet of a clamoring student section chanting “Bobby Mo” every chance it could.
Senior Jarrod Polson came off the bench to steady things, and Kentucky recovered to get within 28-27 at the break.
Yet the Colonials never folded, making 8 of 12 shots during one stretch to move back in front 49-36 then holding off a late Kentucky push to send students leaping over tables and onto the floor in a delirious celebration.