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Oakland puts the Madness back in March with a stirring upset of Kentucky

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Every so often, in defiance of college sports’ grim retreat from magic, along comes a Cinderella team out of central casting. It may have an anthropomorphic mascot modified by a color. It may have a lifer for a coach who plays golf almost daily, organizes charity drives and survived a near-death experience. It may have a sharpshooter come off the bench and out of nowhere and leave a mark that lasts forever.

Every so often, along comes a team such as the Oakland Golden Grizzlies. The No. 14 seed from Rochester, Mich., upended third-seeded Kentucky, 80-76, and delivered everything that makes the NCAA tournament an event that cannot help but produce joy, no matter how many administrators and executives get in the way. Who had heard of these guys before Thursday night? Who will ever forget them now?

Coach Greg Kampe’s 40th season at Oakland, which came seven years after sepsis nearly killed him, produced his first NCAA tournament victory. Graduate student Jack Gohlke, a deadeye transfer from Division II Hillsdale College, drained 10 three-pointers that accounted for all but two of his 32 points. At times, as Oakland overcame early shooting woes and asserted itself and finally seized control, it seemed as if the Golden Grizzles and the crowd inside Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena may float away together.

“We wanted Kentucky because they’re the best,” Kampe said in a postgame interview on the CBS broadcast, Gohlke’s arm slung around his shoulder. “What this means to our university, it’s just unbelievable. I’m happy for my players.”

At the end of the on-court interview, Gohlke grabbed the reporter’s microphone, leaned down and declared on national television, “We’re not a Cinderella.”

The entire night belonged to Gohlke, a 24-year-old from Pewaukee, Wis., whose previous basketball highlight had been making first-team all-Great Midwest Athletic Conference last year. Gohlke walks into gyms to do one thing: launch shots without a conscience from deep. He took 335 shots this season — and 327 of them came from behind the three-point arc. All week long, Kampe repeatedly told him: “Just go shoot it, baby. You’re the best.”

Kampe inserted Gohlke early in the first half, and every time he touched the ball it turned into a Big Blue emergency. He curled around screens, faked passes, stepped back and faded away. He took 20 shots, all threes, and made 10, one shy of the NCAA tournament record.

“It’s a dream,” Gohlke said. “This is why players work so hard, to get to this stage.”

It could be cherished by anybody outside the sizable Kentucky contingent, which has grown restless with March dismay. Despite being a reliable factory for NBA talent, John Calipari’s program has not reached the tournament’s second weekend since 2019. The Wildcats’ stumble against Oakland joined their stunning loss to No. 15 seed St. Peter’s in the first round two years ago among recent head-scratchers.

Kentucky entered the tournament with a warning sign. With freshmen Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham, both projected lottery picks, and a bevy of long-limbed big men, the Wildcats were one of the best offensive teams in the country. But they also rated 111th in statistician Ken Pomeroy’s defensive ratings. Sheppard, the son of Kentucky legend Jeff, never showed up in what may be his lone tournament appearance, making 1 of 5 attempts for three points with two turnovers.

Calipari walked off the court alone, brushing his slicked-back gray hair with his right hand.

Oakland led 38-35 at halftime after Gohlke’s first seven threes, and the Golden Grizzlies never let Kentucky’s superior size take control. In late-game huddles, Kampe told his players over and over, “We win close games.”

Oakland held a one-point lead after a Kentucky three-pointer with about a minute left. After Oakland drained the clock, the ball found junior guard DQ Cole in the left-hand corner. He let fly a three that splashed through and stretched the lead to 78-74, a two-possession advantage Kentucky could not overcome.

Despite Gohlke’s assertion, Oakland had been everything a Cinderella was supposed to be. It had earned the best part of an upset: the chance to do it again. Kampe said his team would celebrate for 45 minutes, then start preparing for either Texas Tech or North Carolina State on Saturday.

“We got a chance of a lifetime,” Kampe said. “This isn’t the end of it. This is not the end of it.”

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