CRAWFORD | For Centre, loss to Kentucky doesn't dampen the game of a lifetime
It was a lopsided loss, but for Centre College, Friday night's exhibition in Rupp Arena was the game of a lifetime.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) – The last time Centre College played the University of Kentucky in basketball, the year was 1929 and a Page 2 advertisement in The Courier-Journal showed a man saying, “I light up a Lucky when I’m tempted to eat between meals.”
Different times. Kentucky and Centre played 46 times between 1906 and 1929, the last meeting a 47-11 Kentucky victory in which Centre didn’t score a field goal until the second half.
This year, the result wasn’t much prettier – a 106-63 victory for a Kentucky team ranked No. 5 in NCAA Division I against Centre, from NCAA Division III.
But for Colonels coach Greg Mason and his players, the experience was a thing of beauty.
“What a night for Centre basketball,” Mason said. “What a night for Centre College. In the dictionary, nirvana is a state of perfect happiness, and that’s me right now and I think it’s our guys as well.”
Mason grew up in Shelby County, the son of a coach, and a fan of the Wildcats. He took over Centre’s program just five years removed from playing for the Colonels and has established a winning tradition in his 19 years.
But this experience was less about winning than experiencing.
“These kids represented Centre well, and will remember this night for the rest of their lives,” said Eddie Mason, Greg’s father and former coach at Shelby County High School. “That’s why Greg did the game.”
You could see how much it meant to players – 14 of the 19 on Centre’s roster are from Kentucky – after the game. Instead of getting ready for the bus ride home in their locker rooms, several Centre players wandered into the press room to listen to Kentucky coach John Calipari after the game. Even Mason lingered in the press room.
This isn’t normal stuff.
Nor was it normal to hear the kind of roars that went through Rupp Arena whenever Centre scored. If you can name a bigger visiting crowd for a game in Rupp Arena, have at it. I don’t think you’ll find a bigger one, or see more of an opponent’s colors than the yellow that dotted the stands in Rupp Arena.
A great many Kentucky fans are Centre Alums. At least one told Mason on Friday that it would be the first time they’d gone to a game in Rupp and worn another team’s colors.
Centre scrapped with Kentucky early and after 11 1/2 minutes trailed only by six, at 28-22. Then Kentucky closed the half on a 24-2 and the rout was on. But it didn’t dampen Mason’s appreciation for his players. He held his 6-month-old daughter as he talked with reporters after the game.
“I takes a lot of courage to come into an environment like this,” Mason said. "It’s kind like playing golf with Phil Mickelson. You want to do it, but then you get up on that first tee box and the butterflies hit. Other than just a devastating run at the end of the first half, I thought we were awesome. I couldn’t be more proud of our guys. I told them, ‘Let’s represent Centre College and Centre basketball in a way that’s deserving.’ And I thought our guys did that and more.”
Calipari said the usual stuff you’ll hear from a coach after a lopsided exhibition win. He said he’s not quite pressing the panic button, “but I have both feet on it.”
But he also said he likes playing the exhibitions against in-state opponents.
“It's a way of helping different programs and this thing is kind of unique in that the seat I sit in, you cheat the position if you're not reaching out to help,” Calipari said. “And the same with this program, we have a chance to help other programs, and I know when we schedule non-conference games, that's more beneficial to that other team than us and the only, you know, players or the programs I remember is when I was at UMass and Memphis and they wouldn't play me. So now I won't play them. They're out. But everybody else is in play.”
After the game, Centre’s players and coaches took pictures on the Rupp Arena court. And the headed back to campus with some stories they’d always tell.
“The excitement around the college this week was great,” said guard Jarod Griffin. “It’s such a great opportunity for Centre College as a whole. The whole campus kind of rallied around us this game. It was a really awesome experience for all of us. It’s a great opportunity to play against one of the best programs in college basketball. We were really excited to do this -- and obviously the length and athleticism really got to us in the end -- but we thought we got better and we hope we helped them get better as a team too.”
It’s funny. Listening to Kentucky’s players after the game, it was just another game. The Courier-Journal writer, after that 1929 Kentucky blowout, wrote, “It was a rout, nothing more, nothing less. Hardly a game worth seeing and certainly not one worth writing home about.”
For the Kentucky players, it was just another game. For Centre’s players, it was the game of a lifetime. After 88 years, this old rivalry showed it still has some charm.
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