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The week after: Evansville is staying engaged after its historic upset win

Walter McCarty is trying to fend off the distractions that come with a Rupp Arena win, and continue building a Valley contender.

NCAA Basketball: Evansville at Kentucky
Walter McCarty’s Purple Aces are getting national attention.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

College basketball’s most shocking upset so far this season happened at Kentucky’s Rupp Arena when Evansville upset the then-top ranked Wildcats on Nov. 12. With the landmark win in the rear view mirror, life has gone on for the Purple Aces and head coach Walter McCarty, which has included a win over IU-Kokomo and a two-point loss to SMU.

The monumental win has had the Purple Aces riding the proverbial roller coaster, and McCarty hasn’t exactly loved the distractions that have come with it while he tries to keep his team engaged in the building process.

“It’s been great for our program, but I actually don’t like it that much,” said McCarty. “It takes us away a little bit from what we’re doing, because we’re reading the headlines. It takes us a little bit away from what we do and what we need to do to be successful.”

The Aces were able to overcome the highly talented Wildcats because they rebounded well (winning the battle on the glass), played tenacious defense and didn’t make many mistakes. McCarty knows his new-look team has to do the little things to be successful, but did he really believe they could beat Kentucky?

“I knew we would play well. I have a great group of kids,” said McCarty. “They’re very engaged and very competitive. We were very engaged for the three or four practices leading into the game. I got confidence from them, that we would play well. I thought if we were close, we would have a legit shot at winning the game.”

His team went into the game believing they could make history. McCarty showed his team an emotional scene from the Will Smith movie “Pursuit of Happiness.” He wanted his players to know that no one should be allowed to alter their dreams.

“All we heard last week was how we were going to get blown out and we should just enjoy the experience,” offered the former Kentucky Wildcat. “It was kind of insulting. I get that they’re Kentucky, but we weren’t just taking a trip there. Our guys were offended by that and I said don’t let anybody tell you what you can or cannot do. If you have a dream, go out and do it. Our guys responded.”

Senior guard K.J. Riley led the way with 18 points in the historic win, and made all eight of his free throw attempts. McCarty says his team follows Riley’s lead.

“He’s our leader,” gushed McCarty. “He’s a 6’5 point guard from the Bronx. He’s tough. He can get to and finish strong in the paint. He’s developed his jump shot and has confidence in his jump shot which is really good now and has really helped his game.”

McCarty wanted his players to see where he had played and what big time basketball is about, but he wanted them to understand that they belonged on that stage. The former Boston Celtic player and coach said his team just stayed together, they stayed engaged. They didn’t allow the Cats many easy transition points or second chance opportunities.

“Kentucky would go on a run and our guys didn’t fold. They continued to battle and to battle.”

McCarty doesn’t want his team to be a ‘one hit wonder’.

“We want to build a program the right way,” says McCarty. “I love what we’re doing. We have a great staff, and everybody’s really engaged and we’re all on the same page. We have to keep building on it.”

One of the building blocks is redshirt sophomore DeAndre Williams. The 6’9 point-forward sat out last season getting his academics in order. His prep career was littered with accolades and he participated in the NBA Top 100 Camp.

He is the Missouri Valley Conference’s reigning, two-time ‘Newcomer of the Week’. Against Kentucky he scored nine points, grabbed four rebounds and handed out three assists. Statistically, that was his worst game. He’s leading the Purple Aces in scoring (17.8 PPG), rebounding (8.5 RPG) and steals (1.5 SPG).

McCarty says he’s a special talent that has to stay engaged.

“DeAndre can score from anywhere on the floor,” he smiles. “He can post up and he can beat you inside and out. He can guard the point and he can guard centers. He’s just an awesome talent. He can play all over the floor. He really has a knack for scoring the basketball and is really competitive and doesn’t like to lose. He’s just scratching the surface of how good he can be. We have to help him be engaged every second he’s out there. He’s going to be a really good player and people will really take notice.”

Transfers Sam Cunliffe and Artur Labinowicz have added stability, scoring and balance to the UE lineup. McCarty says his team can play nine or 10 players that play hard and complement one another.

“We have a really good group,” he said. “If we continue to play hard and stay locked in, we’re going to give some people a lot of trouble.”

UE opens its MTE against East Carolina, who McCarty describes as a very tough team. He’s excited about the opportunity to play more quality teams in preparation for the Valley season.

“It’s another opportunity for us to go out there and show the country who we are,” said McCarty. “If we can do our jobs, play together and stay play our system, hopefully we can go down there and be competitive and come back with some wins under our belts. In everything we do, I’m trying to get us ready for the Missouri Valley Conference.”

Beating the top ranked team isn’t enough for Walter McCarty. He wants his team engaged, locked in and looking forward.