LEXINGTON, Ky. --- It started with a sight maybe never before seen in Kentucky’s Rupp Arena: UK fans standing in applause for a team dressed in a lighter shade of blue.
“Did you ever think you would cheer for the North Carolina Tar Heels,” Kentucky coach John Calipari asked the sellout crowd of more than 20,000.
And yet they did as a group of former Kentucky stars prepared to take on eight UNC greats in the 2015 UK Alumni Charity game.
There was skilled and prideful play from both teams but the 122-115 final score was not the most important thing to come from Sunday’s game: the nationally televised event, in conjunction with the John Calipari Basketball Fantasy Experience, is expected to raise $1.5 million for charity.
The UNC collection with just two current NBA players - recent NBA champions Harrison Barnes and James Michael McAdoo of the Golden State Warriors - lost by seven against a Kentucky roster that featured NBA All-Stars Demarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, along with three lottery picks from this year’s draft, including No. 1 draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns. Another No. 1 pick, Anthony Davis, added star power to the event as the UK coach.
Barnes and Cousins battled back and forth throughout and Barnes recalled his counterpart saying, “Man, you all are really trying to win out here?”
Barnes responded: “You all didn’t give us a shot, but we’re trying.” He led all scorers with 39 points while Cousins paced Kentucky with 33 points and 18 rebounds.
Jerry Stackhouse served as player-coach on the UNC roster that also included Bobby Frasor, Leslie McDonald, Wes Miller, Dexter Strickland and Shammond Williams.
Calipari thanked the UNC team for making the event possible and announced $250,000 in charitable gifts related to the UNC program (see notebook).
Barnes helped pull together the Carolina contingent, coordinating schedules and flights.
“There was a lot of work that went into it,” Barnes said. “I tried to get as many UNC guys as possible. A lot of guys wanted to be here but couldn’t.”
Navigating team contracts with UNC alums now playing professionally proved challenging.
“First, we tried to get all the young guys to play,” Barnes said. “Then we reached out to the older guys, guys who probably haven’t even picked up a ball in awhile. And they were like, ‘You know what? I love Carolina so much, so I’m going to come out.’”
Barnes said his experience planning the UNC side could help spur a similar event in Chapel Hill in the future.
“Kentucky’s the first pick if they want to come back,” Barnes said. “Or Kansas, Duke, UConn, whoever has a tradition of guys in the league. Arizona, even. Coach Kerr and all those guys might want to get involved.”
Calipari said afterward it was possible a UK alumni group could be a part of a return game.
McAdoo said he had no idea what to expect coming into the event but after his experience Sunday he’s excited and hopeful that a UNC Alumni game could take root.
“At the end of the day, it’s bigger than us as individuals,” McAdoo said. “We represent the University of North Carolina and I know that’s something I’ll never take for granted. To be able to do that every summer, that’d be crazy.”