West Virginia vs. Kentucky through the years
Long recognized as one of the fabled basketball programs in the country, the Kentucky Wildcats are in the Coliseum tomorrow to face West Virginia in a Big 12/Southeastern Conference midseason game.
In the late 1950s, the two schools had a series of games that were always played in the massive Memorial Coliseum at Christmastime. The much-watched annual University of Kentucky Invitational Tournament saw the Mountaineers of Jerry West and coach Fred Schaus receive invites to that event for three consecutive seasons, from 1957 to 1959.
The teams employed similar styles, with West Virginia and its full-court pressure increasing the pace of most of its games and the Bluegrass Wildcats running free with their breezy fast-breaks and up-tempo tactics mostly overpowering the rest of the Southeastern Conference.
Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp never used any defense other than a man-to-man until he was about ready to retire at age 70. The Mountaineers and Schaus ran the ball into their front court whenever possible. Schaus hoped his quickness and conditioning advantage would carry the Southern Conference flag back to Morgantown.
Both teams had legions of fans who listened to radio broadcasts across each state. Jack Fleming lofted West Virginia’s banner. And Cawood Ledford was a revered figure on WHAS out of Louisville in all of Kentucky.
Kentucky had lofty national rankings and actually won the national championship in the 1957-58 season. West Virginia also had sky-high national rankings – completing the 1957-58 season with a No.1 ranking and then finishing second in the nation in the 1958-59 season when losing a one-point decision to California in the NCAA title game.
It started in December of 1957, when Lloyd Sharrar was a senior center for WVU and Johnny Cox and Vern Hatton were the Kentucky Colonels of note.
Before an overflow crowd of 11,300, West Virginia topped the Wildcats of Coach Rupp, 77-70. Sharrar scored a game-high 21 points and had 18 rebounds. Bob Smith followed with 17 points, with West getting 15, senior Don Vincent another 14 and senior Joedy Gardner finishing with 10 points.
Cox was Kentucky’s offensive spark with 23 points.
Rupp labeled his team as the “Fiddlin’ Five” because of its many slow starts to games. But in March of the next calendar year, the Fiddlers beat Seattle in the NCAA national championship game.
The next December, West Virginia was back in the Memorial Coliseum for a second straight UKIT.
Kentucky came into the pre-Christmas game as the No. 2-ranked team. Over 11,700 attended the game, which drew countrywide attention from published periodicals, wire services and large-city newspapers.
In a game that had the crowd bubbling with enthusiasm because of the nonstop scoring, Kentucky took a 97-91 decision – despite West scoring 36 points and had 16 rebounds. Kentucky had a fast-paced 54-50 lead at the half and survived the scoring of West, Bob Smith (17 points), Bob Clousson (15 points) and Willie Akers (10 points, 12 rebounds).
Sid Cohen led the Kentucky scoring parade with 23 points, just ahead of Bobby Slusher (19) and Cox (16).
West Virginia altered its starting lineup and player rotation through the remainder of the season and reached all the way to the NCAA national championship game.
In West’s senior year, the Mountaineers came back to the UKIT in December of 1959. It would be a game that added much luster to the already dignified and deified career of the quicksilver forward.
With West Virginia holding a short lead in the first half, there was a body-banging clash near the basket; West suffered a broken nose. It bled profusely even as trainer Whitey Gwynne tried to stop the flow.
Minutes later, West – with cotton jammed into his nostrils – returned with his bloodstained jersey to the game.
Scoring 19 points in the second half, West with his 33 points and 18 rebounds was the guiding force in West Virginia’s 79-70 win. Lee Patrone tallied 21 points and Jim Warren added another 16. Bennie Coffman topped Kentucky’s list of scorers with his 20 and the Wildcats lost even though they made 28-of-30 free throws.
There would be six WVU vs. Kentucky games between 1964 and 2008, all of which Kentucky won.
Then, in 2010, the teams met in the NCAA East Regional finals.
The Mountaineers prevailed and went to the Final Four, winning 73-66 behind the balanced scoring of Da’Sean Butler, Joe Mazzulla, Kevin Jones and Devin Ebanks.
John Wall scored 19 points and DeMarcus Cousins had 15 for the Wildcats.
The last meeting between the teams came in March of 2015 in the NCAA tournament. Kentucky brushed aside the Mountaineers, 78-39, leaving no doubt as to their superiority that day.
When the game tips off tomorrow before a sold-out arena audience of over 14,000, Kentucky will start with an all-freshmen lineup that has lost enough times to drop out of the Top 20. West Virginia has dealt Virginia its only loss of the season and hovered near the top of the Big 12 standings after seven games with a 5-2 record.
It may have been many years since Jerry West, Fred Schaus and company brought into focus the quality of WVU basketball. Kentucky’s Rupp saw it firsthand. The throngs in the Memorial Coliseum – the country’s fourth-largest college basketball facility at the time – gasped at times at what they were seeing, and West Virginia’s teams were populated with fan-popular players from the state’s basketball-happy high schools.
This West Virginia team still uses a pressing defense. And the Mountaineers still fill all their seats when playing a classy opponent. Kentucky generally has at least four freshmen who believe they’ll be playing in the NBA after just a single season in Lexington.
There will be no slowdown tomorrow. The shot clock may never sound. West Virginia and Kentucky will be off and running. And they may never stop.