College Basketball has several records that probably will never be broken, among them UCLA's seven consecutive national championships, former Bruin coach John Wooden's 10 national titles in 12 years and Pete Maravich's scoring average of 44.2 points a game during his career at Louisiana State. But the safest record of all must be Kentucky's 129-game home court winning streak, which began after a 45-40 loss to Ohio State on Jan. 2, 1943, and lasted until a 59-58 loss to Georgia Tech on Jan. 8, 1955. The Tech coach in '55 was John (Whack) Hyder, now 81 and still living in Atlanta. "We caught Kentucky off guard that night," Hyder says. "It was the first time I ever saw grown people cry over a basketball loss. They just sat there, too shocked to move."
As the Georgia Tech coach from 1951 through '73, Hyder had a respectable, 292-271 record. Still, he'll always be remembered for that one victory that proved to college basketball coaches that Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp and his Wildcat teams were mortal after all. During the years of its home court streak, Kentucky had emerged as the colossus of the college game, winning NCAA championships in 1948, '49 and '51. The Wildcats also won the NIT in 1946 and had a 25-0 team in 1953-54 that did not participate in postseason play. (During the season three players were found to be ineligible for the tournament, and the school decided that it would skip the postseason.) After winning 84 consecutive home games in Alumni Gym, they moved into a new arena—11,500-seat Memorial Coliseum—in 1950 and won their first 45 games there.
The season before the upset, Kentucky played Georgia Tech twice, winning the first game by 52 points and the second by 51. Although they had lost Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey and Lou Tsioropoulos from their unbeaten squad of the previous season, the Wildcats were still considered talented enough to manhandle Tech, which entered Lexington's Memorial Coliseum on that historic Saturday night in January 1955 with a 2-4 record, including a loss to Sewanee in its preceding game. In fact, the game was expected to be so one-sided in favor of Kentucky that the play-by-play announcer, Cawood Ledford, who was then in the second year of a 39-year career, devoted much of his pregame preparation to boning up on the Wildcat substitutes. They were likely to get plenty of playing time.
"A lot of people in the crowd that night had never seen Kentucky lose," Hyder says. "The games weren't on TV in those days, and the fans didn't travel with the teams like they do now."
The Kentucky players admitted later that they were looking past the Yellow Jackets to a home game scheduled two days later against highly regarded DePaul. The result: an uninspired Kentucky performance that enabled Georgia Tech to gain confidence as the game unfolded. Early in the second half, to the disbelief of Rupp and the crowd of 11,000, the Yellow Jackets led by as much as eight points. Then Kentucky woke up, as everyone knew it would; the Wildcats moved to a 58-55 lead with 1:12 remaining. Even after guard Bobby Kimmel made two free throws to cut the lead to 58-57, nobody thought that Tech would be able to pull out a win.
With 18 seconds to go, Billy Evans, Kentucky's captain, took an inbounds pass from fellow guard Gayle Rose. Under pressure from Kimmel, Evans lost the ball to Tech's double-teaming Joe Helms, who at 5'9" was the smallest player on the floor. Helms went down the court and canned a 12-foot jumper with 12 seconds left to give Tech the lead. In the final seconds Kentucky got off two shots—a jumper by Linville Puckett and a tip by Phil Grawemeyer—but neither of them went down. When the final horn sounded, the crowd sat frozen, not believing what it had just seen.
"I remember losing the ball," says Evans, now an executive with Kentucky Fried Chicken in Louisville, "but what I remember most is the total silence when it was over. Just nothing. It took people awhile before they finally got up and started filing out."
The only noise came from the Tech players, who celebrated so boisterously that Kimmel, a hero from Valley High in nearby Louisville, suffered a cut above his eye. What made the upset even more amazing was that Hyder had used only five players. Besides Kimmel and Helms, they were Lenny and Bill Cohen (not related) and Dick Lenholt. "We just had a bunch of scrawny kids who went out and battled," Hyder says. "We flew home that night, and I remember there was a crowd waiting for us at the airport, something that had never happened to a Georgia Tech basketball team."
Back in Lexington, Rupp was almost in shock. "He didn't rant and rave too much in the locker room," recalls John Brewer, a Kentucky reserve who is now an executive with a St. Louis scrap-metals firm. However, according to Brewer, Rupp did say to the players in his most solemn voice, "From this time until history is no longer recorded, you will be remembered as the team that broke that string. Even if you go on to win the NCAA championship, you must carry this scar with you the rest of your lives."
After the game, Evans went to the movies at the Ashland Theater in Lexington. As he sat there in the darkness, he remembers, people were whispering about the defeat as they took their seats. "The word was spreading that Kentucky had lost," he says. The Sunday newspapers gave it the Pearl Harbor treatment. Ed Ashford of the Lexington Herald-Leader called Helms's winning basket "the shot that was heard around the basketball world," and Tev Laudeman of the Louisville Courier-Journal wrote, "It was the night the mouse ate the cat."