• WHEN: Dec. 20, 1983 • WHERE: Riverfront Coliseum
• SCORE: Kentucky 24, Cincinnati 11

The day the UC-UK rivalry stalled

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Doug Kecman was among the audience for a college basketball game, as he often is these days, but his beloved Cincinnati Bearcats weren't playing on this November night. Instead, the Crown had been invaded by Kentucky fans eager to see their team play, even if the opponent was overmatched Wright State.

“I think the people who drove across the river that night wished there'd never been a bridge built.”
- UK coach Joe B. Hall
Kentucky had played overmatched opponents in this building before, and Big Blue fans made the pilgrammage just the same and paid whatever price was necessary. As he sat in the stands, Kecman overheard the UK fan in front of him talking about one such night: Dec. 20, 1983.

“The guy said, "I remember buying season tickets to UC games just to come up and watch UK play them, and then Cincinnati stalled the whole game,'” Kecman says. “I'm just listening, kind of eavesdropping, and he knew everything about the game.

“Finally, I tapped him on the shoulder and said, "I don't want to bring up any bad memories, but I played in that game.'

“He looked at me and said, "I bet you were number 22.'”

Not much about that night was easy to forget.

Including the final score.

Kentucky 24, Cincinnati 11.

It was 15 years ago today, Kentucky vs. Cincinnati in the building then known as Riverfront Coliseum. In 40 minutes of basketball, the teams attempted just 31 shots and made 15 field goals. Mostly, they dribbled and passed and stood on the court.

They set basketball back 50 years and maybe moved it forward, as well. It was a game that had a lasting effect on the sport and on the UK-UC rivalry, such as it is, and still is debated as often as any of the 467 games the Bearcats have played since.

Kentucky brought in 7-foot-1 Sam Bowie, 6-10 Melvin Turpin, 6-8 Kenny Walker and 6-7 Winston Bennett, all of whom played in the Final Four later that season and in the NBA after leaving Lexington. First-year Bearcats coach Tony Yates looked at his squad, which went on to finish 3-25, and determined the Bearcats would play a stall game.

The Cincinnati Bearcats and Kentucky Wildcats set plenty of records for basketball futility when they met at the Crown — then known as Riverfront Coliseum — in a game played 15 years ago today. These are the UC school marks the two established:

• Fewest points: 11.
• Fewest field goals: 5
• Fewest field goals attempts: 12
• Fewest rebounds: 9

• Fewest points: 24
• Fewest field goal attempts: 19
• Fewest rebounds: 11
• Fewest personal fouls: 4

Before the shot clock was introduced to college basketball, teams would commonly hold the ball for the final minutes of games in which they owned substantial leads. On the rarest of occasions, a team would stall an entire game, dribbling and passing and only attempting shots that seemed certain to connect.

A national television audience watched on ESPN, the cable channel then just four years old. In fact, they watched twice, since the network used to replay games the following morning. They didn't see a lot of action either time.

That the UC stall was widely seen fueled the argument in favor of adopting a shot clock for college games, which was being considered at the time because of North Carolina coach Dean Smith's “four corners” delay offense.

Wildcats coach Joe B. Hall was so angry afterward he insisted he'd never again schedule UC. “That's one I've erased from the video, I assure you,” Hall says. “I have a way of eliminating all the undesirable situations.”

There are those who believe UC and UK no longer play each other because of the stall game, but Hall retired in 1985 and a subsequent arrangement was made that brought the Wildcats to the Shoemaker Center in 1991. The series has been dormant since, but not the mutual distrust.

“I'll be surfing the Internet, cruising some basketball boards,” says former UK big man Bret Bearup, “and whenever the subject of Kentucky against Cincinnati comes up, you see people posting, "I don't care if we ever play Cincinnati after what they did in 1983.'”

UK fans, comprising more than half the crowd even though it was a Bearcats home game, were infuriated by the stagnant show they paid to see. UC fans were mostly pleased because the stall gave their team a chance — and, frankly, because the UK fans were infuriated.

“I was expecting to get big minutes,” Bearup says. “I was so mad — because of the way it was played, I didn't play. I didn't get a lot of DNPs in my career. To have one against Cincinnati was profoundly disappointing. What a gargantuan waste of time.”

Former UC center Joe Niemann remembers hearing the Kentucky fans chant, “Borrrrrr-ing, borrrrrr-ing.” He's heard it plenty of times since, watching games on television, and wonders if it might have been invented that night.

“I can't say for sure, but I hadn't heard it before,” Niemann says. “It was probably the only hope we ever had for winning the game.”

Everyone should have seen it coming.

Mark Purdy did.

In 1983, Purdy was the Enquirer'ssports columnist, and he raised the possibility of an all-out Cincinnati stall on the morning of the game.

“Tony Yates wouldn't hold the ball. Surely not,” Purdy wrote. “He wouldn't stall against Kentucky tonight. Would he?”

Yeah, he would.

“We had a 6-5 starting center and two 6-1 forwards,” Yates says. “All their kids were high school All-Americans, and so we decided to use a strategy that would best help our young men be competitive. From the University of Cincinnati perspective, it turned out fine.”

Never saw it coming
The Kentucky game was the first start in Kecman's career. He was a junior then, hadn't played much his first two seasons, but he had a strong game in a 55-50 loss to Miami three days earlier. Kecman thought he was entering the lineup so he could fire from the corners against UK's 1-3-1 zone. He wound up attempting one shot.

Niemann remembers that UC perhaps worked on its four-corners delay a little more often in the days before playing UK, but never anticipated what transpired.

“I think the rule was, if it wasn't a layup, we weren't supposed to take the shot. Coach Hall didn't really know what to do,” Niemann says. “Every time Kentucky did get the ball, they were almost afraid to shoot, because they knew they weren't going to see it again for a while.”

Kentucky and Cincinnati have played basketball just 37 times — not much more often than the Bearcats have played Tulsa or Bradley — and have met four times since 1980 despite their proximity and mutually rich histories.

The series had been dormant 36 years when, Hall says, he agreed to bring the Wildcats to Cincinnati as a favor to Yates. The two had become friends as assistant coaches on the recruiting road.

They remained friends after the stall, but being opponents was another matter. “He asked me to play as a favor to get fans coming, and then he held the ball. I wouldn't do that to my worst enemy,” Hall says. “I still think the world of Tony. He's a fine person. But he let me down in that game.”

The Bearcats began the stall by setting themselves in the four corners with 18:30 left in the first half, and they had a 3-1 lead by the 16:47 mark.

Kentucky had little choice but to be patient itself or risk never attempting a quality shot. So it took more than two minutes before attempting its next shot and tying the game.

A chance to win
UC committed only three turnovers in the first half, but one of those helped the Wildcats to make consecutive baskets and assume a four-point lead. The Bearcats then held the ball for 7 minutes, 22 seconds, but lost it on a traveling call and were fortunate to be as close as they were at the break.

Fifteen years later, Niemann and Kecman recall without prompting the precise halftime score. Yates, too. “The score was 11-7, and Kentucky was totally out of their game,” Niemann says.

“You know why they remembered that?” Yates asks.

Because they had a chance.

“We went in at halftime,” Kecman says, “and thought we'd won the national championship.”

There weren't many times during Hall's career as Kentucky coach he had to do as much improvising as he did that night. There was no gameplan to cope with Cincinnati's tactic, only the knowledge and logic of a coach just five years removed from a national championship

Hall made extensive use of reserve freshman guard Paul Andrews, who scored three points and got two rebounds. Hall explained to the players the necessity of patience.

“You have to give it time for your talent to prevail, as it usually does. What would be an ideal situation for the team holding the ball is if you just stand and they take the final shot.”

Hall ordered the UK defense to be aggressive chasing the ball, but not so aggressive as to open the lane for quick cuts or drives to the goal. UC had perhaps its last chance in that regard when it trailed by four early in the second but missed a layup that would have made it a two-point game.

“In retrospect, I would say you couldn't be very happy over it,” Hall says. “Where you win a game the other team doesn't want to play, that's not very satisfying.

“I think the people who drove across the river that night wished there'd never been a bridge built.”

The geography of the UK-UC rivalry is what makes it unique. For that matter, it is the only reason a rivalry can be considered to exist, since the two teams do not play one another. The Ohio River is, for many, a border between Wildcats and Bearcats fandom.

“One of the things around this game that's kind of neat,” Yates says, “is that being connected to Northern Kentucky and having the interaction between the fans. There's a constant discussion about that game, and it's kind of neat that happens because it kind of keeps the interest in the rivalry going.

“Who would have thought a 25-11 game would still be talked about? We discuss it here in the office all the time.”

It is not impossible for a team to play a delay game under current rules, but the Bearcats or anyone else would not be able to hold the ball longer than 35 seconds before shooting. So it's really no longer possible to stall — what Hall terms “a farce game.”

When Kentucky played Wright State at the Crown, Wright hadn't much choice but to take its one-sided beating and its payday, and the Wildcats were able to work on all the strategies and techniques that were of so little use on that night 15 years ago.

Hall favored the installation of a shot-clock from years of coaching international teams that played under those rules. It was voted into full-time use, with a 45-second cycle, for the 1985-86 season — the first year after Hall retired as UK coach.

There still was one more season in which there was no shot clock, though, and the Yates' Bearcats traveled to Rupp Arena to challenge Hall's Wildcats in the title game of the University of Kentucky Invitational on Dec. 22, 1984.

UC was a more capable team that would go on to finish the year with a 17-14 mark and NIT appearance. In a rebuilding year, Kentucky went 18-13 and made a surprising run to the NCAA Sweet 16.

The memory of the stall game was fresh, which is no surprise, since it remains strong 15 years later.

“When we got the tip, we went into a four corners,” Kecman says. “Fans were throwing stuff. I got hit by three or four pennies.

“We didn't intend to play that way all game. We did it just to do it.”

UC 86, UNLV 73
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