Christmas Eve '83: Kentucky at Illinois
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Christmas Eve '83: Kentucky at Illinois

Drew Franklin12/24/21

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Article written by:Drew FranklinDrew Franklin

DrewFranklinKSR

Hop in! We’re jumping in the KSR Time Machine to rewind to a Christmas Eve memory of Kentucky Basketball past. Hurry, we have to get back before dinner. Grandpa gets hangry.

*****

The year was 1983 and for the first time in Kentucky Basketball history, and for the only time in Kentucky Basketball history, the Wildcats played a Christmas Eve basketball game. Traditionally a night to be home with family waiting for Santa, Christmas Eve ’83 was a game day for No. 1/2 Kentucky—and in Champaign, Illinois, no less.

Records show a high of five-below-zero and a wind-chill around negative-40 in Champaign for Kentucky’s holiday road trip to play undefeated Illinois. Piles of snow decorated the Illini campus for Christmas; so much, it delayed the start of the game.

“We’re not driving all the way out here so you can get one of those stupid ties with the Santa Clauses on it, are we Coach Hall?” — Kenny Walker, probably

This sounds made up, but it is in fact, true: the three Big Ten officials employed to call the game were unable to make it to Assembly Hall, so three spectators with local experience were pulled from the crowd and given the whistles. The Chicago-Tribune’s story on the game notes two of the volunteer referees were wearing blue jeans. Can you imagine that happening today? (It couldn’t be any worse than the SEC, I guess.)

Once the basketball got underway, Illinois controlled the battle of unbeatens into halftime, leading 33-26 at the break. But Kentucky made it a game in the second half, led by high-scorers Jim Master and Sam Bowie, each with 11 points in the game.

Blackmon saves Christmas

With a minute to go, Joe B. Hall’s Wildcats maintained a four-point lead, a decent cushion in the pre-shot clock era. But an ill-timed foul on Winston Bennett allowed back-to-back Illinois baskets, the latter a free throw line jumper by Quinn Richardson to tie the score at 54 with 19 seconds to go.

It appeared both teams and the almost-8,000 fans in attendance would be even later getting home for the holiday.

But at least one person wasn’t interested in extra basketball that night. James Blackmon, a reserve freshman off the bench, was ready to get all nestled and snug in his bed with visions of sugar plums dancing in his head. Blackmon realized the threat of Christmas Eve overtime and Coach Hall called a timeout with eight seconds to go to get him in the game for the last shot.

A wise decision, Blackmon drove right and banked in a 15-footer as time expired, only his third shot attempt of the entire game.

FINAL: Kentucky 56, Illinois 54

The 1983-84 Kentucky team went on to reach the Final Four after defeating Illinois again, 54-51, in the Elite Eight of the 1984 NCAA Tournament.

Unfortunately, the Wildcats were still late for Christmas that season. The team plane had complications and Chicago O’Hare was shut down due to the weather. Anyone returning to Lexington with the team was bussed back on Christmas Eve, per Jerry Tipton’s account of the evening.

It’s Kentucky Basketball’s only Christmas Eve or Christmas game.

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2022-05-26