What is it like to step on a basketball court with victory in hand? What is it like to be “untouchable?” The 1995-96 Kentucky Wildcats basketball team answered those questions.
After losing to a Massachusetts team led by Marcus Camby in their second game of the season, the Cats embarked on a 33-1 stretch which included a 27-game winning streak en route to capturing the program’s sixth national championship.
Wildcat head coach Rick Pitino, who dubbed the squad, “The Untouchables,” unleashed his finest team that year. Led by guard Tony Delk, forwards Antoine Walker, Walter McCarty, Derek Anderson and Ron Mercer, Kentucky received little resistance in 1995-96.
The Cats were unselfish with a nation’s best 783 assists. With Delk, McCarty and guards Anthony Epps and Jeff Sheppard all shooting above 40 percent from the three-point line, opposing defenses could not double Walker or center Mark Pope on the inside. While Kentucky’s high-octane offense sliced and diced its counterparts, the Cats’ full-court press hounded teams into mistakes, creating easy transition opportunities. The Wildcats’ 435 steals led the nation and were largely a result of the pressure applied after a Kentucky made basket. Center Pope and McCarty provided solid interior defense as the team finished 11th in the country in blocked shots.
Kentucky started the season 9-1 win with non-conference wins over Maryland, Indiana, Georgia Tech and rival Louisville. The Cats breezed through their 16-game Southeastern Conference schedule, winning by an average of 29 points per contest. Kentucky won every league game by at least 13 points with the exception of an 82-77 victory at eventual Sweet 16 participant Georgia.
The game that sticks out most, though, was the Cats’ 129-97 destruction of LSU in Baton Rouge. The Cats forced 31 turnovers and raced to a 86-42 halftime lead before coasting in the second half.
After finishing league play undefeated, Kentucky easily dispatched Florida and Arkansas in the SEC Tournament before suffering its second setback of the season to 1996 Final Four participant Mississippi State in the title game, 84-73. The loss to the Bulldogs snapped Kentucky’s 27-game winning streak and provided a wake-up call to the Cats.
Entering the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional, Kentucky was an overwhelming favorite to make the Final Four. After making short work of San Jose State, Virginia Tech, and Utah in the tourney’s first three rounds, All-American and Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year Tim Duncan and the Wake Forest Demon Deacons awaited the Cats in the Elite Eight in Minneapolis, Minn. Delk’s 25 points on 4-of-6 from three led the way as Kentucky jumped out to a 38-19 halftime lead and was never threatened in a 83-63 victory. The Wildcats forced 19 Demon Deacons turnovers as they negated Duncan.
The Cats then traveled to East Rutherford, N.J., to face No. 1 UMass in the national semifinal. With Walker and Delk’s combined 34 points in addition to 12 Wildcat steals, Kentucky exacted its revenge by banishing the Minutemen 81-74 and advanced to a title game matchup with the Syracuse Orangemen, who had defeated SEC tournament champion Mississippi State in the semifinals.
Kentucky won the national title with a gritty 76-67 victory over the Orangemen. Delk’s seven three-pointers led to him being named the tourney’s Most Outstanding Player while Mercer’s 20 points helped the Wildcats offset Syracuse forward John Wallace’s 29-point, 10-rebound performance. Even in the grueling six-game tournament, Kentucky defeated its opposition by an average of 21.5 points per contest.
After the ‘96 season, Walker, Delk and McCarty were drafted in the first round of the 1996 NBA Draft with Pope getting selected in the second. Mercer, along with Anderson and Nazr Mohammed, were first-round picks in future NBA drafts while Sheppard and Wayne Turner played in the league.
Kentucky also played in the ‘97 and ‘98 national title games, losing to Arizona in ‘97 while defeating Utah in ‘98 for its second championship in a three years. Pitino left after the 1996-97 season to coach the Boston Celtics before returning to, of all places, Louisville. Pitino eventually won a second national title with the Cardinals in 2013, but his ‘96 Wildcat team will probably always remain ”untouchable” in his mind. H&A
All photos courtesy University of Kentucky Athletics.