9:15:43:Basketball vs. Southern

Southern University Jaguars head coach Sean Woods talks to reporters after the UK vs. Southern basketball game on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 76-64. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Kentucky men’s basketball (7-1) defeated the Southern Jaguars (3-6) 76-64 in the inaugural Unity Series game in Rupp Arena.

The game was the first of five Unity Series games, an annual matchup against a historically black college or university (HBCU) from the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), planned that Kentucky will host.

Along with the two teams battling inside Rupp Arena, players and coaches from both teams had the chance to travel together to Cincinnati, Ohio to visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Museum.

“It was very eye opening,” Southern head coach Sean Woods said. “We grew up [associating] the Underground Railroad with Harriet Tubman. Tubman was just a little piece of the movement, and to learn exactly what went down and who was involved was very eye opening.”

Woods wasn’t the only one to comment on the exhibit’s educational capabilities, as Kentucky head coach John Calipari echoed the sentiment later:

“I needed another three hours because it was so educational,” Calipari said. “It makes you uncomfortable. Makes you think ‘if I was in the 1800s would I have the same heart? Would I be the same person?’ The educators [at the museum] were unbelievable.”

As well as being an eye opening experience for both coaches, players also joined in to share the sentiment of the museum’s impactful nature.

“Just to learn about my culture is always a big plus,” Kentucky freshman TyTy Washington said. “Me and my teammates really took the time [to pay attention and learn]. I’m really, really interested in the [subject].”

The museum trip wasn’t all that the Unity Series had to offer, with the games also being planned to raise money and spread awareness to the missions of HBCUs and provide opportunities for the students at the institutions.

UK Athletics also partnered with the John McLendon Leadership Initiative, a coach-driven initiative to provide minorities with a boost to their careers with practical experiences and networking opportunities.

For the inaugural event, 150 game tickets were given out to Lexington schools who were identified by UK’s Diversity Advocacy Committee. Several children from such schools were then broadcasted on the jumbotron to announce the starting lineups for both teams.

TJ Beisner, Kentucky men’s basketball’s director of player development, also met with Southern’s players to discuss opportunities surrounding Name, Image, and Likeness deals as well as other personal branding advice. The effort was intended to help boost the athletes careers in ways their current team couldn't provide, with HBCUs historically having lower enrollment and significantly lower budgets.

Though Kentucky won the contest after entering as a 30-point favorite, Coach Woods commented on the significance of the matchup between HBCUs and a basketball powerhouse like Kentucky on the road.

“Most teams at our level and especially our league have to play these games every year because of our financial situations,” Woods said. “Right now [my players] aren’t in there happy that they battled closely with Kentucky, they’re thinking about [their mistakes] and [how it impacted the result]. That’s how I want them to think. These teams are capable [of winning big games], especially with how college basketball is right now.”

Though he was referencing his team specifically, his words seemed to also have a broader significance, especially following Texas Southern’s upset victory over No. 20 Florida in Gainesville on Monday. 

Woods was also able to feel the significance of playing at Kentucky on a personal level, having been on the Wildcats roster from 1988-1992 as part of ‘The Unforgettables’. His tenure ultimately earned him a spot in the UK Athletics Hall of Fame.

Woods departed the venue tonight without the win on the scoreboard, but left his mark in another way, giving powerful words to the Bluegrass regarding the state of the world and what this series signifies.

“Whenever [black and white people] come together, great things happen. Whenever you try to separate people and downgrade people, nothing good ever happens. The Underground Railroad wasn’t just Harriet Tubman and black people helping black people, it was also a lot of white people helping black people. If we stick together, great things will happen. [The Unforgettables] wouldn’t have been successful if we hadn’t come together. That wasn’t just Rick Pitino, that was us buying in and helping each other [despite being from all different backgrounds]. That’s what this world needs to get better at.”

The game was the last of a lengthy home stint for Kentucky, with the Wildcats hitting the road this weekend to play at Notre Dame this Saturday Dec. 15. The Unity Series is planned to return next year though the HBCU featured and date are TBD.