They had weathered the occasion with aplomb. They had trailed by 35 points midway through the second half, but they narrowed that considerably from there, and they didn’t suffer any outsized horror such as what happened on Dec. 20 to UCLA, which fell behind Kentucky 24-0 at the outset.
“A pretty great experience,” Hampton guard Brian Darden said. “The atmosphere. Playing against the number-one team. You get to test yourself, see how well you do.”
As a 17-17 team that finished sixth in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference yet won its conference tournament even after losing its top player, Dwight Meikle, to injury, Hampton had rushed all the way from the muddle to the middle of the action. Rather than freaking out, it reached the first media timeout with a 7-6 lead. It got through nine minutes of the first half before Kentucky made some blurry runs to the basket and Hampton Coach Edward Joyner Jr. had to call a first timeout down 18-11.
Kentucky’s deep band of coveted talents went on a 14-0 run soon thereafter, but the Hampton players thought they weathered pretty well the bout amid the 7-foot skyscrapers of a team that would be the second-tallest were it in the NBA. In contrast, Hampton’s tallest starter was 6-8 — a distinction held by Jervon Pressley. “We didn’t fear them,” Darden said.
“I think my team competed great against the number-one team in the country,” said guard Quinton Chievous, who scored 22 points, had 10 rebounds and made some stirring ventures into the giant forest.
“No one’s happy with a loss, but I’m pleased with the overall effort,” said Joyner, shortly before he did a brief impersonation in the hallway of a 6-foot-2 guy trying to block out a 7-foot guy.
They had begun the evening with the uncommon breeziness of a team that exulted in just getting here, getting through Manhattan in the first-round game Tuesday night and some traffic hassles getting to practice in Louisville on Wednesday.
While Cincinnati and Purdue played their second half of the first game, some Hampton players stretched on the hallway floor. Somebody brought two hot dogs with mustard to Joyner, and he strolled around in his track suit eating them. “What’s up, man?” he said to a reporter standing nearby.
Then, after Joyner went into the coaching office and changed steadily into his suit for the game, Cincinnati and Purdue had the gall to go into overtime. Hampton’s players returned to the hallway, stretched again. Said Darden, “That’s NCAA March Madness for you.” Said Reginald Johnson, “The last thing we needed was overtime.”
When Purdue’s last-chance shot finally missed, somebody said, “Let’s get it,” and the unlikeliest team in the field made its way out for warmups. While the masses of Kentucky fans audibly spelled, “C-A-T-S,” Joyner paced around a bit, from the locker room, out into the hall. Then he nodded to a police officer, threw a slice of gum into his mouth and headed into an arena about thrice the size (22,000) of the one in which Hampton plays (7,000).
When it finished, Hampton had both the predictable 51-31 rebounding disadvantage and the experience of trying basketball against such giants.
That length weighs upon the mind constantly, the Pirates said: In driving to the basket, with even the simplest passes. “You have to be precise with what you do,” Darden said. “You have to be very cautious with what shots you take.”
On one play 5:45 before halftime, Johnson tried the kind of long inbounds pass from the baseline that normally would be safe from interception. Yet he still couldn’t get it high enough, and the ball thudded against the hand of a rising Trey Lyles, one of Kentucky’s four players at 6-foot-10 or above. It epitomized the risks.
Many teams have excellent guards, Joyner said in the hallway as the night and season ended, but Kentucky has so much more. “Where they really hurt you is, they can pound that thing inside to those big boys, and they can finish.” It happened enough to come to look methodical, but at least the evening had not been completely miserable.