Saturday, January 20, 2024

Kentucky 105 - 96 Georgia (Win No. 2,389)

"Grandpa, tell me about the Legend of Big Z."

"But you've heard that old story so many times.  Do you really want to hear it again?"

"Yes, Grandpa.  It's my favorite."

"OK, son.  Now, you have to remember that this was a long time ago, way back in January 2024.  Back then, there were still a lot of things we didn't know about the Kentucky Wildcats.  Guys would suffer mysterious injuries and not play for weeks at a time.  Guys would get in trouble with their grades -- "

"Grandpa, what are grades?"

"Don't worry about it.  Anyway, the point is that we just didn't know as much about the team as fans do nowadays.  Now in the 2023-24 season, Kentucky fans were frustrated.  Believe it or not, it had almost been nine years since Kentucky had played in the Final Four."

"Nine years!  That seems impossible.  How did you stand it?"

"We were a tougher people back then.  But we were frustrated.  Anyway, for 2023-24 Kentucky was supposed to have three 7 footers, but when the season began none of them was playing.  Aaron Bradshaw was injured.  Ugonna Onyenso was injured.  And Zvonimir Ivisic was waiting on a ruling from the NCAA to determine whether he could play."

"Grandpa, who were the NCAA?"

"Oh, I keep forgetting you don't know about them.  Well, that's a story for another time."

"And Grandpa, how do you pronounce Zvon . . . Zvono . . ."

"No one knows, except for possibly Tom Leach.  That's why he was the Big Z.  Anyway, Kentucky was off to a pretty good start -- 13-3, big wins over North Carolina and Florida.  But the season was over halfway finished, and the NCAA still hadn't ruled on the Big Z.  So some Kentucky fans paid to erect a large billboard across from the NCAA Headquarters in Indianapolis.  It said, 'FREE BIG Z.'  And, then, one day in the middle of January, they suddenly announced that he could play for Kentucky."

"Were the fans excited?"

"You bet, but of course none of us had ever seen him play.  Anyway, they were playing Georgia in Rupp Arena that very day, and a huge crowd turned up to see what would happen.  After 4 1/2 minutes, Georgia was ahead 10 to 8.  But then Big Z entered the game.  He was wearing Number 44, which was the number of Cotton Nash, Dan Issel, and Chuck Hayes, three of the greatest Kentucky players of all time.  Almost immediately he blocked a Georgia shot.  A minute later he picked up a loose ball and threw an outlet pass that led to a layup.  Now Kentucky was up 13-10, and the crowd was getting excited."

"What happened next?"

"The team was inspired.  Reed Sheppard made a three-point shot to put UK up 16 to 10, and then on the next play, someone threw the ball to Big Z -- and he threw a BEHIND THE BACK PASS to Antonio Reeves.  Reeves made another three point shot, and Kentucky led 19 to 10.  Oh, the fans went wild.  Georgia had to call timeout."

"Was that all?"

"You know it wasn't.  You've heard this story before."

"Yeah, but the shooting is my favorite part."

"OK, a few minutes later Big Z came into the game again.  Now Kentucky was up 28 to 22.  He got a rebound, and Kentucky went down the floor.  D.J. Wagner threw the ball to Big Z and he shot a three pointer.  It was good!  The fans went wild.  A few plays later, he took a long two-pointer -- and it was good!  The next play, he made another three!  And then, on the next play, he made another three!  He had made his first four shots -- all long jump shots -- and three of them were three-pointers.  By that point Kentucky was up 41 to 24, and the game was basically won."

"Wow.  That really does sound like a legend."

"You are right.  But I remember seeing the whole thing on television when I was a kid.  It really happened."

"The Kentucky fans must have been really excited after that game.  I bet they couldn't wait for the next game so that they could see what their three seven footers, and all their great shooting guards, were going to do next."

"You are right.  When I went to school on Monday, all the kids were talking about Big Z."

"So what happened next, Grandpa?  What did Kentucky do in the rest of the 2024 season?"

"It's getting late and it's time for you to go to bed.  I'll tell you all about it another time."

"OK, Grandpa.  I'm glad we root for Kentucky.  It's the best team, isn't it?"

"It is.  We're very lucky to be Kentucky fans."

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