With a little over four minutes left to play, the only fans making noise in Rupp Arena are wearing purple and orange. They have plenty to celebrate: Noah Frederking had just drained a three-point shot to extend the Evansville Aces’ lead against the No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats to 61-55.
Evansville has been the better team for the entire game. A small contingent of Evansville faithful made the trip to Lexington, strategically seated in sections 36 and 236, off in the corner of the arena. As the game reaches its climax, those sections are loud enough to overpower the home crowd: “Aces! Aces!”
After Kentucky’s Immanuel Quickley’s missed three-pointer, Keion Brooks Jr. grabs an offensive rebound and lays it in to make it 61-57. But Kentucky isn’t supposed to be satisfied with trimming Evansville’s lead to four. Kids around the arena look worried, and their parents do too, even while trying to act like everything is fine.
With the score at 63-60 and Evansville in possession, the crowd wakes up, desperate for a stop. They’ve been working hard all game to try to get their team back into the contest, a testament to how good Kentucky fans are and how much trouble they’re in.
The Aces’ K.J. Riley goes in for a contested layup, misses, grabs the offensive rebound with two Wildcats over his back, and tips it in to give his team a five-point lead with 1:41 to go. The hopeful Kentucky cheers die down, replaced by a booming roar from the corner of the arena. The noise is both shocking and impressive, coming from such a tiny group of fans. Walter McCarty, Evansville’s coach, claps twice and doesn’t lose composure, immediately looking to the other end of the floor to watch his team play defense. He knows he has the Wildcats right where he wants them.
And now things are starting to feel very real: Evansville might beat No. 1 Kentucky at Rupp Arena.
McCarty, his assistants Bennie Seltzer and Terrence Commodore (better known as T.C.), and his best friend Troy White are eating Mister B’s pizza and wings in the players’ lounge on the University of Evansville campus. Their final practice at home had just wrapped up, and the team takes off for Lexington on Monday. On the TV, the 1-7 Falcons are playing the Saints.
“God dang, he’s slow,” Seltzer says of quarterback Matt Ryan after a scramble. Everybody in the room is laughing.
“I might be able to beat him in a race right now,” McCarty replies.
“Look at Matt Ryan’s face, look at the determination!” Seltzer says after a replay is shown.
Even the ability to gather in the players’ lounge, watch some football and eat in peace is a testament to the work that McCarty has done at Evansville. His players and staff enjoy being at the facility. They can relax there. It’s not rare for players to funnel in and out of his office. Their practice facility is a home for everybody involved with Evansville basketball, and McCarty wouldn’t have it any other way.
The 6’10, salt-and-pepper bearded McCarty was raised on the south side of Evansville, just on the western side of Highway 41, which runs north-south and splits the city in two. He grew up with one brother, two sisters, his mother and a stepdad who came around when he was in early elementary school.
Walter’s mother Joy worked at Eaton Axle in the assembly line across the river in Henderson, Kentucky, and would pick up waitressing at the American Legion or at a bar to make extra money for the family. His stepdad, Stephen Lindsey, worked at Alcoa, an aluminum producer, and went to sleep early, having to start work at 4 a.m. When Joy was going into work, Stephen was coming home, and vice versa. “[My siblings and I] weren’t alone,” McCarty says. “We were stable. But you know, they weren’t really strict.”
In sixth grade, he met Troy White while at Plaza Park in middle school, an East Side kid. The two bonded over basketball. As they got older, their relationship developed, and now they’re damn near inseparable. McCarty and White aren’t like peanut butter and jelly. Peanut butter and jelly are like McCarty and White.
”We kind of know how to play off each other,” McCarty says. “You know how they say like twins have a certain connection? It’s not like that, but we’ve been around each other so long, we’re almost the same.”
Basketball started clicking for McCarty at Harrison High School basketball camps. “I went from 6’3 in eighth grade, to the start of my freshman year at 6’7. It was crazy, but at the same time, it started clicking, and that’s when I knew right there, I wanted to play. Then like, when you grow to be 6’10, to me, I was like, ‘Man, this is my way out. I gotta do it. This is my way out.’”
It was. Basketball took McCarty to Lexington and the University of Kentucky, where he won a national championship in 1996 under Rick Pitino. While at Kentucky, McCarty forged a bond with Tony Delk so strong that he describes him as another brother.
“When I think about Kentucky, and I think about Lexington, I think about that brotherhood and the connection we had with each other,” he says. “I don’t think about Kentucky as the basketball mecca; it’s about the brotherhood that we had when we were there. Kentucky’s always had great teams and will continue to have great teams. But it’s about the relationships that I built there.”
”One of his nicknames in college was ‘Mr. Personality,’” White says. McCarty cracks up, adding that the nickname was “given to me by Jamal Mashburn.”
It’s an accurate nickname. When McCarty is in a room, he radiates an energy everybody feeds off. He has a deep voice, booming when it has to be, soft when he sings. He’s good about being kind to everybody, introducing himself to people when he gets a vibe they might be too shy to talk to him. If he senses somebody is having a bad time, he takes it upon himself to fix it.
”He knows how to work with people, he knows how to develop relationships,” White says. “He knows when he develops a relationship, how to maintain it. Never has his success gotten to him in such a way that he has forgotten who he is at his core.”
McCarty was taken by the New York Knicks in the first round of the 1996 NBA Draft, selected 19th overall. White followed McCarty to New York and spent his rookie season with him there. Just two kids from Evansville, taking on New York City.
”To grow up in Evansville, and to be able to have a friend that thinks enough of you to put you in a situation that could ultimately change your life, like,” he pauses, collecting himself, “Those experiences that he’s given me have changed my life. It’s not something I take for granted.”
After enjoying their pizza and wings, plus a surprising Atlanta Falcons’ victory, McCarty, White and Seltzer make their way to Mo’s House, a bar in Evansville’s Haynie’s Corner Arts District owned by Moriah Hobgood, one of the city’s most influential entrepreneurs.
The men enter, and head for the outdoor area that opened in April. It’s a beautiful day, 66 degrees with just a few clouds. McCarty and Seltzer have their cigar boxes, spark a couple, and ask for coffees with bourbon cream. White gets a hot chocolate, because he’s not a drinker.
McCarty pulls out his portable speaker and lets some Babyface play. There are hardly any people at Mo’s right now, but it won’t stay that way for long. For now, McCarty is letting the music ride, and is singing along. Conversation among the three floats all over the place, from college hoops to Lamar Jackson’s latest eye-popping touchdown to Dion Waiters having a panic attack over an edible. At times they let things pass in silence because they have the type of relationship where nothing needs to be said. Everybody is perfectly fine enjoying each other’s physical presence.
This bar is where McCarty wants to be if they beat Kentucky. “We going to come back here and tell Mo, ‘Mo, you’re opening, Mo. We’re going to Mo’s right now, off the bus!’”
As the bar gets busier, a fan comes up to McCarty, shakes his hand, and wishes him luck against Kentucky, but in a way that implied he had no confidence in McCarty’s team.
McCarty ignores the slight and replies, “Yeah, we’ll get ‘em.”
The University of Evansville has a rich basketball history. A small college powerhouse under Arad McCutchan, they routinely beat Division I schools, and even had an undefeated national championship season in 1965. Coached by the man they called “Mac” and powered by legends like Larry Humes and Jerry Sloan, the Aces won five national titles.
When the program moved up to Division I in 1977, a smooth transition seemed likely. There were talented players on the squad, and in Bobby Watson they had a fresh face who looked like a worthy successor to Mac after his retirement.
But on December 13 of that same year, as the team was traveling to play Middle Tennessee State, their plane clipped trees in the Melody Hills neighborhood on Evansville’s north side, and fell into a ravine. All 29 people on board Indiana Air Flight 216 died. More than 40 years later, the accident is still known as “The Night It Rained Tears.”
There’s no telling where Aces basketball would be today had it not been for that tragic night. The program’s most successful coach since the crash has been Jim Crews, who made four NCAA tournaments in 16 years and has a banner hanging in the rafters at the Ford Center, where the Aces play today. That’s fine for a mid-major, but because of the success the school had as a small college program, there’s always been a nagging feeling that Evansville could do better.
The legacy of the plane crash is a generational gap among Aces fans. Most that show up to games nowadays are older than the average college hoops crowd. They’re the ones who remember when the Aces were a must-see. For the past four decades, that hasn’t been the case. Evansville has long had the type of crowds that mostly cheer when a player is subbed out and had a good performance, or when the fight song is playing. But that’s changing.
When McCarty was hired in March 2018, Evansville immediately felt his presence. He is the most important hire that the university has made since Mac called it quits. The university needed a young, energetic, intelligent basketball mind, and now they have one.
McCarty, then an assistant with the Boston Celtics, had interviews with other schools, but Evansville ended up working out perfectly, even when it may not have seemed like it to him. The recruiting process went fast. After a phone interview, Evansville’s athletic director Mark Spencer had a chat with Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. Stevens later told McCarty, “Man, I don’t know what you did, but this guy, he loves you.”
After a second interview, boosters were lined up to call McCarty. McCarty was in New Orleans, with the Celtics set to play the Pelicans.
”I’m waiting on these boosters to call, I’m trying to find the Kentucky game, and go somewhere and smoke a cigar,” McCarty says. “I found a place, turned this game on, and a booster calls me and it goes great. The next booster calls me, and it goes great. The next booster calls, goes great. All I’m thinking is, ‘They hear all this shit in the background, this ain’t the guy.’ Because I’m watching Kentucky basketball, it was just like, ‘I blew that shit, I blew it.’ Not knowing that I did a great job.”
A day later, Spencer hinted to McCarty, “When you come home on your trip, I might not let you leave.”
But despite the reassurance, McCarty didn’t have high hopes. The Celtics were about to go to Portland to start a two-week road trip, so McCarty sent his bags on ahead with the team. He was planning on going to Evansville, doing his interview, and joining the Celtics in Portland afterward.
As Spencer drove McCarty back to his hotel in downtown Evansville with then-senior associate athletic director Lance Wilkerson in the back seat, Spencer showed McCarty just how badly the university wanted him there.
“Mark hands me the contract, and he’s like, ‘I told you I wasn’t going to let you leave. I don’t want you to leave,’” McCarty says. “He was really emotional about it.”
The trio went up to McCarty’s room where he signed the contract and became the eighth head coach in Evansville’s history.
McCarty was an easy choice, not only for the school, but for the assistants who have joined him along the way.
”Everything that our guys are trying to accomplish, our coach has already been through it,” Seltzer says. “So why wouldn’t you listen to him? Why wouldn’t that be a focal point of, ‘Hey man, this guy really knows what he’s talking about’? And I think that really translates to our guys. He’s done it in a way where – you know I’ve coached with guys that curse the kids out, talk shit to them and talk crazy to them. I’ve also coached with guys where once you leave the gym, you’ll never see them. You gotta talk to the secretary to schedule an appointment, that’s crazy. That’s crazy to me. And here, Coach is — he’s accessible as any coach I’ve ever been with and I think our guys appreciate that. That’s different; that hardly happens anywhere.”
The comfort the players have with coming in and out of the coaches’ offices is great, but can be a little much sometimes, as T.C. jokes, “They here so much we gotta run them off sometimes, like, don’t you got something to do?”
McCarty’s personality and energy are consistent, expressed in the culture he’s instilled at Evansville, his style as a basketball player, and his attitude as a head coach.
“I am a true kid that grew up across 41 and didn’t have a whole lot. And, shoot, I never thought in a million years I’d be the head coach at the University of Evansville. I used to pass this university every day, you know? I love sometimes on game days, I’m driving down to the arena, and I’m thinking, ‘Man, I used to go to church there,’ you know what I’m saying? It’s one of those like, ‘Damn. Good shit happens when you work.”
“I wanna be here for a long time,” he says very seriously. “That means we’re kicking ass and doing a good job. I’m here to create a program that’s going to be sustainable for a long time. That’s my goal.”
McCarty’s status as Evansville’s head coach is also significant because he is a black man. Evansville’s history as a city is complicated. Situated in a midwestern state, it also has many southern qualities. The city’s location in southwestern Indiana meant a quick trip across the Ohio River for Kentucky residents, who may not have always been as hospitable towards blacks as northerners.
When McCarty was hired, Evansville lost some big boosters. Was it because he was the university’s first black coach? “From hearing from other people in this program,” he says, “I felt that way.”
But he hasn’t let the defections faze him.
”I thought about this, coming here and being the first African-American head coach at this university. Our people here in Evansville, especially people of color — what leaders do they see, other than a parent, a pastor, or an insurance guy or something? There’s not a lot of people they can look up around and be like, ‘He’s really doing his job to bring his community together and people can look up to him.’ I gotta own that, and I got to make sure I do good by that.”
He’s not worried about the lost boosters. “Just like music, sports — those are things that bring people together, right? We’ll get ‘em back. We’ll get ‘em back. We win, we do the right thing, they’ll come back. They’ll come back. That’s what we’re betting on – building the right program, building this culture.
“If you’re an Aces fan, you love basketball, we’re going to win you back.”
White comes in through the side door around 11 a.m., just in time for practice. His arrival is timed perfectly: McCarty is making his way down the hallway right where he’s entering.
“You guys got film?” White asks.
“Yeahhh, man,” McCarty drags out in response.
White knows the drill, and goes to the practice court while the team looks over film of the Wildcats in the players lounge. Nobody is intimidated by the thought of playing against the country’s top team.
“After I got the job, I saw [John Calipari] somewhere. He comes up to me and just says, ‘Man, tell me what I can do. I’ll do anything for you, but I’m not coming to Evansville,’” McCarty says. “So I said, ‘Let’s get a game.’ He didn’t even hesitate, he’s like, ‘Let’s do it.’ And it got done.”
Film ends at 11:50 and the Aces are coming out onto the floor. Sam Cunliffe is the first one out and comes to White’s end of the court. He says something to White, who laughs and responds, “Get focused, get focused.” A couple of other players join in as the team is warming up with stretches from the baseline to half-court. White also encourages them to focus, and they do, because they respect him as much as anybody else in the building.
The pace picks up when McCarty comes out a couple minutes later decked in a gray Nike sweatsuit, a teal Jordan Brand T-shirt and some Air Jordan 3s in the Knicks’ colorway. He turns on “6 Man” by Drake, the music soon accompanied by the frenzied squeaking of sneakers on the basketball floor.
The practice court has changed since McCarty was hired. There are now banners on both ends of the gym, one with pictures of current players and the other bearing the names of Evansville Aces legends. The championship banners that once hung on the far side of the gym have been replaced by “EVERY POSSESSION MATTERS.” On the other end: “PLAY WITH A PURPOSE.”
Seltzer and T.C. walk over and start making conversation with White about the Aces win against Ball State the night before. White wasn’t able to make it because he was in Louisville at an Anthony Hamilton concert.
“I saw the score at half and I said, ‘Oh shit, they must be playing today!’” Troy tells them with a laugh.
And they were playing. Evansville jumped out to a 40-18 halftime lead, but nearly surrendered it, ultimately winning 79-75. Today, the coaches are going to try to iron things out, because a second half like that won’t fly against Kentucky. Seltzer and T.C. work their way over towards the team, which is done stretching and ready to get to work. They’re also joined by assistant coach Logan Baumann, who has been at half-court with Isaac McGlone, the director of basketball operations for the team.
Baumann takes the Aces through a play, giving very specific instructions not just on where to be, but the angle they should take, hand placement, everything. Baumann was a part of Louisville’s 2013 national championship winning team, and by the way he handles the Aces players you can tell he’s going to be a Power 5 head coach one day. On the floor, he’s a spitting image of a top-level coach, serious and meticulous.
Baumann seems pleased with how the guys are responding to what he’s telling them, and says, “If we can get this right, we’re going to be in good shape,” which was the overarching message of the practice. They know they can win the game. McCarty adds encouragement.
“After that, it’s just about effort plays. Who wants it?”
“If you do what we tell you to do, you will make baskets.”
McCarty’s coaching style is all about trusting his players. He puts them in the right spot and gives them the tools to succeed, and then it’s up to them. He’s taken bits and pieces from the men he’s worked under, but he’s his own guy.
He learned Xs and Os from playing all five positions throughout his career. Having learned the basics as a player, once he became a coach it was mostly about fine-tuning. “For me, I’ve always made it a point to figure out and ask, ‘Well why are you successful?’ Whether it was with Coach P (Rick Pitino), Mike D’Antoni, Jeff Van Gundy, Mike Dunleavy, Jim O’Brien, Brad Stevens, I’ve always done that.”
McCarty is confident in his players, and confident in himself too. He has to be. “In practice sometimes, I may go off script,” he says. “I’ll be like, ‘OK, board,’ and just start working. So I have that command and attention, but that confidence in the game for whatever I’m doing. Because if there’s any hesitation, if there’s any sign that you don’t believe it or whatever, shit, they see it. And then it really ain’t gonna work.
”I tell my guys, ‘Go make the right play. Just go have fun, go make the right play.’ We’re starting to build that confidence. What you’re doing is you’re letting them know that you trust them, but what you get out of it is, they’re going to run through a wall for you.”
That confidence and calm was still present as the team prepared to go to Lexington. On a cold and drizzly day in Evansville, it was business as usual for the Aces. Popeyes three-pieces awaited the team on the bus, though some players opted to go to the student center across the street and grab some Chick-fil-A.
McCarty was the last one on the bus, and looked like he had just walked out of his barber’s chair. McCarty knows when you look good, typically you do good: there’s an invincible feeling that comes with a fresh cut. He put off his haircut just so he would look his best for his return to Lexington.
The next morning, the team is at shootaround at Rupp Arena around 11 a.m. The guys are warming up, and McCarty is looking up into the rafters, where Kentucky’s old-timey banners hang displaying Final Four appearances, runners-up and national championships. He says, “It’s a great day to be a Purple Ace.”
The warmup line gets down to the baseline where he’s standing, and he says, “You see that?” to a couple of Aces, pointing to the 1996 championship banner. “I did that.” The players get a kick out of it, and keep on going about their business.
The team is doing one last walkthrough of what to expect later on in the evening, and players and coaches remain focused and detailed. When going through a play, McCarty tells his team, “You gotta ask yourself, ‘What can I do for my teammates?’” he says. “You guys are going to have open shots all night.”
After they break the final huddle concluding practice, the team sits on the bench they will occupy later that night. They are still very loose for a mid-major walking into an environment like this. Kentucky has a 39-game win streak as an AP No. 1 team at home against non-conference opponents, and the empty arena has an ominous feeling to it.
Then, redshirt sophomore DeAndre Williams gets loud.
“Great day to be a Purple Ace!” he yells. He begins to clap, and clap hard. “Give me that shit, coach! Great day to be a Purple Ace!”
Evansville’s Shamar Givance brings the ball down the floor with less than a minute to go. Kentucky’s Tyrese Maxey is sliding down the court with him step by step. With a late, tight lead, McCarty makes his guys slow things down. Clock is burning. His guys are calm, and they can focus on executing, which is exactly what he stresses in practice. They’re prepared for this moment, and they know it.
After a handful of dribbles at the logo, Givance gets the ball to K.J. Riley, who drives and kicks the ball out to a wide open Noah Frederking. Evansville’s bench rises at the same time Frederking’s shot does, and you could feel the soul draining out of Big Blue Nation as the ball hung in the air. If the shot goes in, the game is done.
It doesn’t, and the Wildcats get a quick two on the other end thanks to Immanuel Quickley. There are 44.5 seconds left, and going from the near-dagger to a quick Kentucky basket could have spelled doom for the Aces. Had Frederking hit that shot, Kentucky fans would be walking back to their cars. Instead, the Wildcats have life.
Evansville drains some clock on the next possession, but aren’t able to get a shot off, and a shot clock violation is called. With 13.7 seconds left, Kentucky opts a quick two-pointer rather than a three, sending Maxey on a drive to the basket, to make it a 65-64 game with eight seconds remaining.
Everybody at Rupp Arena is on their feet. Evansville has been the better-coached team up to this point, and their players have played harder. The 25-point underdogs just need to be better than No. 1 Kentucky for eight more seconds and they will have pulled off the biggest win in program history.
Sam Cunliffe is fouled after an inbounds pass, and calmly walks to the free-throw line. He gives all his teammates five on his way to the stripe. At the line, Cunliffe gets the ball from the referee, takes a quick dribble, and wastes no time putting the basketball through the net. It silences the Rupp Arena crowd quickly, before it can even reach peak volume. He does the same on the second free throw. The Aces lead, 67-64.
Kentucky’s Nate Sestina inbounds the ball to Maxey, who dribbles quickly down the Rupp Arena logo painted on the side of the court. He pulls up just to the side of the bottom of the K on the UK logo at mid-court while Evansville’s Artur Labinowitz carefully contests the shot, avoiding giving Kentucky three foul shots. The high arching shot falls short, and Riley dribbles the ball to safety. McCarty, cool as ever, walks down the court to shake hands with John Calipari and the Wildcats.
The Evansville Aces, under former Kentucky national champion Walter McCarty, have gone into Lexington and beat the Wildcats on their home court.
The elevator going down to the floor level is mostly Kentucky fans with mostly unhappy faces. But one older lady clutches her purse and says, “So Walter came into Rupp Arena and beat ‘em!? Look at that!”
Just inside the tunnel is White, who is jumping up and down, beside himself with excitement. “You come in this motherfucker and win!?” he yells. “That is fucking amazing!”
“I got to call my mom,” he says, pacing and jumping. “I got to call my mom.” He calls her. “Mama! I don’t know if you were watching the game, but Walter just beat Kentucky. Just beat them at Kentucky, Mom! They just beat Kentucky at home, Ma! Oh, my gosh!” He’s still jumping while on the phone.
Tony Delk makes his way into the tunnel and jokes with White, “Get off the phone, man! Get off the phone!” They exchange dap, and share an almost violent hug.
After doing his interviews on the court, McCarty is escorted to the locker room by Isaac McGlone and sports information director Bob Pristash. He daps up and hugs Delk, and starts to walk into the locker room, before seeing White. The two share a big hug, and as McCarty starts to walk away he turns around, leans forward a bit, and says, “What I tell you? I told you we was gon’ get ‘em.”
As soon as McCarty walks into the locker room, he’s showered with water from re-filled Gatorade bottles. He collects as many of his players as he can in his long arms, and hugs them with all his might. The white-and-blue checkered tile in the locker room is soaked, and it’s dangerous, but it doesn’t matter right now. Nothing matters. Evansville beat Kentucky.
The calm and discipline that led them into the game is long gone.
”We fuckin’ beat Kentucky! We fuckin’ beat Kentucky!”
”I’mma call you back!”
”A bunch, a bunch of notifications.”
”The best thing that happened to me since I come here.”
”I can’t even deal with it right now!”
”Is there a towel back there? Or all they all wet?”
”We’re probably trending No. 1.”
”We’re the No. 1 topic in the country on Twitter.”
”Who puts fuckin’ tile on the goddamn floor?”
McCarty’s first order of business is the press conference. He changes into an all-black team-issued sweatsuit. While he’s addressing the media, he lifts his hand to scratch his face, and the blue gems from his 1996 national championship ring seem to shine in the light with little more color than usual.
McCarty then goes out to greet the Evansville fans who stuck around. One of them waiting for him is Mo. They share a hug, and she agrees to open up the House when everyone gets back to Evansville late that same night.
He greets the others who have waited for him, a mix of Evansville fans and Kentucky fans who wanted to congratulate one of their own. He takes pictures, gives dap, squeezes out hugs, and signs autographs. One fan is standing in the bleachers just yelling, “I LOVE WALTAH!” over and over.
But McCarty’s just getting started with what’s about to be an overwhelming amount of media requests. He heads to the coaches’ locker room with Evansville’s sports information director Bob Pristash and director of media relations Michael Robertson. McCarty is seated in the corner locker, and finally has a chance to look at his phone.
The first person he calls is his wife Erin. Before he gets off the phone with her, he’s led to believe that he’s about to do the first of many national media appearances. Technical difficulties buy him some time, so he makes another quick call, then says to me, “Watch this.”
McCarty dials back a number, the tone rings a few times, and all of a sudden, somebody is yelling, “You bad motherfucker!”
It’s Patrick Ewing.
“Beast! What’s up, baby!?” McCarty replies with joy and laughter.
“I’m so fucking proud of you, boy!” Ewing yells back.
After hanging up with Ewing, McCarty turns his phone to me, showing off his 284 unread text messages. By the time his SportsCenter interview with Stan Verrett is over and he gets on the bus to go back to Evansville, there are 304.
”How stupid is that?” he says with a laugh that’s heavily coated with disbelief, “I really gotta go through that? I don’t even wanna do that!”
When McCarty finally steps onto the bus, and starts an impromptu speech with, “I thought we could do it. I knew we could do it. But when you do it.”
”Guys, we are the No. 1 trend in the world right now,” he continues. “Evansville’s the No. 1 trend right now in the world! Shit’s going crazy right now! Hey, we gotta keep building on this, man. Keep building! I know I say it all the time, we got enough guys. If we just play connected, man, we can do anything.”
Anything seems possible in the unreal moments after the game. On the bus, everybody buries themselves in their phones, absorbed by all the attention being thrown their way.
At one point, Charles Barkley calls to congratulate the team, so McCarty put him on speakerphone and walks towards the middle and back of the bus. Barkley tells them to enjoy the win but to get back to work. Once he gets off the phone, DeAndre Williams cracks, “Can we talk to LeBron now?!”
The coaches spend the rest of the bus ride reflecting, a perhaps-futile attempt to absorb the magnitude of what just happened. “Only time I’ve ever felt like that was when we won it all,” Baumann says, seated behind McCarty at the front of the bus. “That was crazy.”
Seltzer, who is across the aisle from McCarty, pulls up an old photo of himself while he was an assistant at Indiana. His hands are raised, and he’s running towards the court, and you can see a leg with blue and white shorts, socks, and shoes on. The picture was taken when Christian Watford and the Hoosiers sank No. 1 Kentucky in Bloomington in 2011.
Baumann tells McCarty that he just got word of a group of about 200 or 300 students waiting for the team outside the Carson Center, and that a pep rally is going to be held the next day to celebrate.
McCarty is incredulous, but Seltzer replies, “When you do something that’s never been done, you gotta do something that’s never done.”
The team is almost back to Evansville, and by now the bus is mostly quiet. McCarty looks up from his phone and shakes his head, smiling and laughing.
“Did we just do that?” he says. “That’s fucking crazy.”