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March 19, 2013Tweet Follow @achiappazzi
No matter. They'll take a program-defining win over one of the nation's most storied basketball programs as a consolation prize.
Johnson scored 14 points and Jones had eight points and five assists, but the hero was junior Mike McFadden. The 66.3 percent free throw shooter knocked down two shots from the stripe with 8.5 seconds left, and Robert Morris stunned Kentucky 59-57 in the NIT. Johnson, Jones and their teammates were enveloped in a sea of red as the 3,444 fans stormed the court when Kyle Wiltjer's 3-pointer missed at the buzzer.
"All I could do was just look at the crowd and smile," Johnson said. "Even if we had lost the last game, it was great to have it at home and with the crowd like that.
Regular contenders in the NEC, the Colonials have become one of the more successful mid-majors in the Northeast. But the season was cast in disappointment when RMU lost 69-60 to Mount St. Mary's in the NEC semifinals. The Colonials missed the NCAA Tournament with that loss, but they'll take a win over the defending national champions.
"For them to be able to come here and us get a victory, is just great," Velton Jones said. "It's just a great thing for the university. It's just crazy."
Kentucky was on its heels from the start. Already tasked with being the rare No. 1 seed to visit a lower seed because Rupp Arena was unavailable, Kentucky struggled with its cohesion and consistency. Robert Morris rocked from the start, as the Colonials built a 10-0 lead that had the program-record crowd rocking.
"It just really settled us down, because it proved to our guys that if we do what we work on and are detailed, we're going to be able to do good things," head coach Andy Toole said.
But as the game settled, Kentucky clawed its way back. The Wildcats pounded the ball inside in an attempt to be physical, and Robert Morris had 11 fouls in the first half. Kentucky used that edge to eventually take a 25-24 lead with just a couple minutes until the break. But Robert Morris fought right back and led 28-27 at the half. The Colonials were 22-0 when leading at halftime entering the game, and that knowledge against a blue-blood like Kentucky was a significant boost.
"We're trying to hold that lead because we can only win games when we're leading at the half," Toole said. "We have to have that lead at the half. Whatever we can do to have it is vital."
Energized again, Robert Morris began the second half much like the first. After strong play from Johnson and Lucky Jones in the first half, this time it was Velton Jones who led Robert Morris. Jones scored all eight of his points in the second half, including six in a row that shot Robert Morris to a double-digit lead again.
"We wanted to show we had no fear that we were playing Kentucky," Velton Jones said. "They were tall but not physical. We just wanted to pressure and try to get up into them just to let them know we were here and we weren't going anywhere the whole game."
Robert Morris led by as much as 13 in the second half, but Kentucky had one last response. Jarred Polson, who came off the bench for 10 points, got things started with a jumper. Julius Mays hit a 3-pointer and Kyle Wiltjer knocked down a jumper to cut Robert Morris' lead to 53-49 with 4:07 left.
"I knew when we were up ten with probably seven minutes to go, it was going to come down to one or two possessions," Toole said. "They're not just going to roll over and walk out of the building. We were going to have to earn the win."
Then came the play that could have turned things sour for Robert Morris. In the midst of a solid 15-point game, Lucky Jones hammered Archie Goodwin as the Kentucky guard went up for a breakaway lay-up. Jones was called for a flagrant foul and kicked out the game with 3:41 left. Goodwin sank two free throws, then tipped in a shot to tie the game at 53 on the ensuing possession.
It could have turned a dream scenario into a nightmare for Robert Morris.
"Lucky's been battling all year for us, and for him to get kicked out of the game like this, I knew he was kind of hurt," Velton Jones said. "He had our back all year, so we had to get his back."
Instead of wilting, Robert Morris polished off the upset with a poised performance. Velton Jones hit two free throws, then fed McFadden for a thunderous dunk with the shot clock winding down to give the Colonials a 57-55 lead. After Goodwin tied it again at 57, Robert Morris held the ball until Toole called a timeout with five seconds left on the shot clock and just 12 seconds left on the game clock.
Jones inbounded the ball to Johnson, who had a great look blocked. But McFadden was there for the rebound and he was fouled on the putback. McFadden, just a 64 percent free throw shooter, made the two biggest free throws of his life.
"I just kept my composure," McFadden said. "I just took a deep breath and knocked them down."
Kentucky chose not to call a timeout, Wiltjer's shot went awry, and bedlam ensued.
"What we talked about in the pregame was playing to exhaustion, and if four or five of your guys going into full body cramps for the last five minutes of the game doesn't speak to exhaustion, and doesn't speak to how badly our guys wanted to win that game and what they were willing to do to win it, I don't know what does," Toole said. "It was absolutely a terrific win, not only for our program but for the university as well."
Robert Morris will play at either Providence or Charlotte in the next round of the NIT.
"We'll enjoy this game tonight, and then come tomorrow, we'll prepare for whoever we're going to play," Johnson said.
Officials: Gary Prager, Tony Chiazza, Matt Potter
ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at email@example.com.
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