It would be a circus, coach Andy Toole said on more than one occasion, and for the most part he was right.
With his Robert Morris team playing host to Kentucky, Toole saw flashing cameras and a frenzied crowd packed into a building seldom more than two-thirds full.
There were no exotic animals, lion tamers or trapeze artists, just basketball players -- half of whom played with a ubiquitous name in blue letters on the front of their white jerseys.
Robert Morris students still on post-game high
The campus of Robert Morris University remains excited the day after the basketball team scored an upset win over Kentucky in the National Invitation Tournament. (Video by Andrew Rush; 3/20/2013)
The circus was not in town, but with the defending NCAA champion Wildcats making an unusual appearance in the 3,056-seat Sewall Center, it might as well have been.
And with the gaze of the college basketball world locked on the oft-overlooked commuter school in Moon, the Colonials rose to the occasion.
Toole consistently compared his team's story to that of Rocky Balboa, but the first "Rocky" movie did not end with him winning the heavyweight title.
Robert Morris opted for a happier ending.
Mike McFadden made two free throws with 8.7 seconds remaining, lifting Robert Morris to a 59-57 upset victory against Kentucky, a program-defining win Tuesday night in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament.
Though they were only a 5-point underdog, the win was monumental for the Colonials (24-10) from a perception standpoint, as the low-major program that was taken down by Mount St. Mary's less than two weeks ago knocked off a school with eight national championships.
Throughout the week, Toole preached a simple message -- though this was a unique situation, his players would not be intimidated or star-struck by the aura of Kentucky.
Early on, the Colonials stayed true to their coach's belief, playing with a sense of poise and aggressiveness that spotted them a 14-2 lead after holding the Wildcats (21-12) scoreless for nearly the first five minutes.
"We just wanted to get into them and pressure them to let them know we're here and we're not going anywhere," guard Velton Jones said.
Robert Morris began pulling away early in the second half, extending its lead to as many as 13 points. But then Kentucky put up a final fight to tie the score with about three minutes remaining.
With the score tied, 57-57, McFadden was fouled and sank both free throws to give Robert Morris a two-point lead with 8.7 seconds left.
"I just took a deep breath and knocked them down," he said.
Kentucky got a shot off before the final buzzer, but Kyle Wiltjer's deep 3-pointer missed, and students immediately stormed the court.
Lucky Jones led the Colonials with 15 points, but was ejected with 3:41 remaining after a hard foul on the Wildcats' Archie Goodwin, who scored a game-high 18 points.
While the win's symbolic importance is immeasurable for Robert Morris, this was far from the traditional Kentucky teams of coach John Calipari's four-year tenure, with all five starters and six NBA draft picks gone from last year's championship squad.
Those defections left a roster filled with freshmen and inexperienced players who were inconsistent throughout the season.
For a coach who has risen to the highest peak of his profession, it was a disappointing return home for Calipari, a Moon native, and marked the end of a frustrating season.
"The stuff I had to withstand this year ... the program almost got hijacked," he said. "Never in my career have I surrendered in any way to any team and I did at times this year, to try to save guys, to try to help guys, and it never works."
Though the loss put an unexpected end to a season that began with the Wildcats ranked among the top three teams, the night belonged to Toole and his team.
For a program that has fallen painfully short in big moments, the underdog was finally able to deliver a knockout punch.
"What we talked about after the Arkansas game [in December] is that if we can continually put ourselves in this kind of position against these kinds of teams, eventually we're going to break through, eventually we're going to have the win that you guys worked for," Toole said.
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @craig_a_meyer. First Published March 20, 2013 4:45 AM