‘We’re not a Cinderella’: Oakland knocks off Kentucky in NCAA stunner


Pittsburgh — Last Sunday afternoon at the O’Rena, at the Oakland watch party for the NCAA Tournament, a young fan, sharpie and poster in hand, walked up to Jack Gohlke and shyly asked, “Are you No. 3?”

After Thursday night, a whole lot more people across the country won’t need a program to identify Gohlke.

Gohlke, a senior guard who arrived on the scene this season after five years at Division II Hillsdale, had one of the most-memorable nights in recent NCAA Tournament history, scoring 21 in the first half, 32 for the game, on a whopping 10 3’s, to lift Oakland to its biggest win in program history, 80-76, over Kentucky at PPG Paints Arena.

Gohlke became just the fifth player to make 10 3-pointers in an NCAA Tournament game, and it surprised just about everyone but himself, and his teammates. Before the Horizon League championship game, coach Greg Kampe told Gohlke, “One more.” Gohlke responded, “Seven more.”

“Obviously, we come in, we’re the underdog by all measures,” Gohlke said. “As a player, you can’t think that way. You gotta go out there and think you have the same talent as them. I Know they have draft picks and I know I’m not going to the NBA, but I know on any given night, I can compete with those guys and our team can. That’s why I say we’re not a Cinderella, because when we play our ‘A’ game, we can be the best team on the floor.”

And that’s what Oakland was for most of the night, leading for more than 10 minutes in the first half, and leading for nearly the final 15 minutes of the game, despite every last Kentucky push. The Wildcats’ largest lead was two.

In Oakland’s fourth trip to the NCAA Tournament, it won its second game, but first in the Round of 64. The Golden Grizzlies (24-11) will play N.C. State (23-14) at 7:10 p.m. Saturday, for a trip to the Sweet 16. N.C. State, a No. 11 seed, beat No. 6 Texas Tech, 80-67, later Thursday.

Kentucky (23-10) suffers its second monumental upset in the last two years, after falling to No. 15 Saint Peter’s as a No. 2 seed two years ago. In 23 NCAA Tournament appearances, Kentucky coach John Calipari has only lost in the Round of 64 three times.

Oakland figured it needed to make at least 15 3’s to win against Kentucky, and the 15th came with 29 seconds left, when senior guard Rocket Watts drove to the lane and had a look, but instead fired a bullet pass over junior swingman DQ Cole in the corner.

BOX SCORE: Oakland 80, Kentucky 76

He drained it to put Oakland up, 78-74, as Oakland’s bench erupted behind him.

Chants of, “Let’s go, Oakland!” rained down after that shot, despite Kentucky fans making up at least 80% of the crowd — not that it sounded like it, with Texas Tech and N.C. State fans joining the party as the game went along.

Kentucky prized freshman Reed Sheppard then missed a 3 on the other end — the projected lottery pick finished with just three points — and Oakland’s star forward Trey Townsend grabbed the rebound, went to the line and made one of two free throws. Kentucky’s Justin Edwards then made a layup to pull within 79-76 with 4 seconds remanding, but Townsend made one more free throw to seal the stunner of all stunners, unless you’re Kampe.

Earlier this week, he said a win over Michigan early in Oakland’s Division I days was his best win, and would remain his best win. He changed his tune after Thursday’s win.

“We just win close games,” Kampe said following career victory No. 699, after hugging Oakland higher-ups, including president Ora Hirsch Pescovitz and Horizon League commissioner Julie Roe Lach as he made his way through the bowels of the arena and to his postgame press conference.

“If you would have been in our huddles the last seven, eight minutes of the game, we said if we get it, if we’re ahead with six minutes to go in the game, we will win, and they believed that, and they did, because they’ve done it all year.”

“We had won a ring,” continued Kampe, whose team took the Horizon League regular-season and tournament championships. “The whole banter in the locker room has been, what’s it going to say on that ring? Right? What’s it going to say on that ring, just Horizon League champ? NCAA? Sweet 16? Final Four? I’ve put that thought in their mind, and they’ve really battled for it, and they understand that their life changed tonight.

“It could get changed a hell of a lot more if we keep this thing going.”

Townsend, the Horizon League player of the year and conference tournament MVP, finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds, and also had a huge steal and a big turnaround jumper late in the game.

He had just four points at the half, bullied by Kentucky’s forest of 7-footers, but he kept going at them in the second half, and things started to open up a bit.

Cole had 12 points and eight rebounds — and maybe the shot of the 2024 NCAA Tournament, so far.

“He swung it, I was ready, I knocked it down,” Cole said, speaking of Watts’ pass. “If I was driving and I shoved it to him, I would expect him to knock it down, too.

“We got all the confidence in Jack, Blake (Lampman), Trey, whoever it is, whoever’s night it is.”

It was a lot of Golden Grizzlies’ nights, and they just aced their screen test for “One Shining Moment.”

Watts, the only player on the Oakland team with Division I NCAA Tournament experience before Thursday’s game, and senior forward Chris Conway each had eight points.

Oakland, with a 38-35 halftime lead despite missing its first seven shots of the game, came out in the second half and weathered an early push from Kentucky, before regaining the lead and maintaining it, even when things got pretty dicey.

The Golden Grizzlies pushed the lead to a game-high seven twice in the second half, the last time on a jumper from senior guard Watts — who returned from an ankle injury, as did sophomore forward Isaiah Jones — and two free throws from Watts, who played in the NCAA Tournament with Michigan State in 2021.

His career hasn’t gone as planned, at Oakland, by way of Michigan State and Mississippi State (his two ex-teams played earlier Thursday, with the Spartans advancing). But he’s going out on a sweet not, whenever he goes out.

“I’m just happy for my brothers,” said Watts, a Detroiter.

For Watts, it was his first Division I NCAA Tournament win (MSU lost to UCLA in a play-in game in 2021), as it was for everybody on Oakland’s roster.

But Gohlke had NCAA Tournament experience at the Division II level, leading Hillsdale to the Elite Eight. He ended up at Hillsdale when even Milwaukee, his hometown school, didn’t give him a look out of high school. There was a time at Hillsdale where he doubted if he was even a Division II player. Now, he’s outshined Kentucky’s roster of future stars, including the two freshman, Sheppard and Rob Dillingham, who are projected NBA lottery picks.

They combined for 13 points, 19 fewer than Gohlke, who was 10-for-20 on 3’s. Kentucky was 9-for-28.

“Going into every game, I just feel like any of my teammates are capable of that, and it just makes me play much more comfortable out there,” said Townsend, the Oxford native who grew up wanting to play basketball at Oakland, and only Oakland.

“Once Jack makes 3’s, it’s, OK, he’s got it going. It could be him. It could be Blake. And like Kampe said, today, it was Jack. I think that’s the great thing about this team, is that any given night, any one of us can do that. But it’s definitely a special thing watching him just 3 after 3 after 3. And he gets so hyped out there.

“It just gives us all momentum and excitement to keep playing hard.”

Oakland actually outrebounded Kentucky, 40-39, and had 14 offensive rebounds, despite a major size disadvantage.

Gohlke had the monster opening half, and thus drew far more attention in the second half, but he still had his moments in the final 20 minutes.

A huge one was an off-balance 3 with 4:35 left to push Oakland’s lead back to 67-62.

“He made a lot of them,” Kentucky senior guard Antonio Reeves said.

“And he made some really tough shots down the stretch.”

Reeves, who finished with 27 points, immediately followed Gohlke’s big shot with a 3 to make it a two-point game, but Conway made a couple free throws. Then, during a media timeout with 4:09 left, Lampman, a senior guard from Haslett who had an off-night and had just left the game limping, yelled to his teammates, “Four minutes, four minutes. Stay together. Let’s go, boys!”

Gohlke then got fouled shooting a 3, something he does more than any player Kampe has ever seen, not just coached. He made two of them to make it 71-65 with 3:33 left.

Edwards followed with a 3, Townsend answered that with the turnaround jumper, and Reeves drained another 3, and Dillingham later made a 3 to make it a one-point game, 75-74, with 1:03 left, as perhaps much of the nation sensed the glass slipper was slipping off Cinderalla’s foot — until Cole buried the 3.

Graduate-student guard Tre Mitchell had 14 points and 13 rebounds for Kentucky before fouling out. Dillingham, and Edwards each had 10 points for the Wildcats, who were met with chants of, “Overrated” in the final seconds. Kentucky was flustered at times throughout the game, including early when Oakland made a strong first push. On a Townsend and-one free throw that he missed, Kentucky thought it was a two-shot foul, and Mitchell casually grabbed the ball and tossed it out of bounds for a turnover.

Oh, and circling back to that Cinderella talk?

“If we were pretenders, we would have folded,” said Kampe, who led the 23rd win by a No. 14 seed over a No. 3 in the NCAA Tournament, in this, his 40th season at Oakland. “And that’s what Jack meant by the Cinderella thing.

“We don’t look at ourselves that way. We’re not pretenders. We believe that we belong here.”

And, as such, the Golden Grizzlies — who earned the Horizon League their first NCAA Tournament win in the Round of 64 since Butler, back in 2011 — are staying right here.

There’s another game, and another chance to let the nation know just who they are.



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