Sam Cunliffe thought long and hard about giving up the game. A top-50 recruit coming out of high school, Cunliffe left Arizona State after one semester despite starting every game and then lasted 15 games at Kansas. He was home in Seattle and wasn’t sure he wanted to take a shot on a third school.
When new Evansville coach Walter McCarty first reached out, one thing went through his mind: “I’ve never even heard of Evansville.”
But Tuesday night, the passion was back. Cunliffe scored 15 points before the break to put Evansville in a position to pull off the ultimate stunner and knock off No. 1 Kentucky at Rupp Arena.
“This makes it all worth it,” Cunliffe said.
Cunliffe had all the Pac-12 schools on him coming out of famed Rainier Beach High in Seattle. Gonzaga was involved and so was Georgetown. Instead, he chose to play for Bobby Hurley at Arizona State.
Through the first 10 games of his college career, Cunliffe looked like one of the nation’s top freshmen, averaging 9.5 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Then came the shocking news that he was transferring. There was no circumstance of a family illness, no reason he had to move closer to home. In fact, his role was what most freshmen dream about to begin their college careers.
“Looking back, I was nuts,” Cunliffe said. “I was starting, averaging 10 points as a freshman. I was really immature and got some bad advice.”
But he wound up in Lawrence, Kansas, playing for one of the most storied programs in the country, so the decision didn’t look quite so puzzling. Cunliffe sat out the second half of the 2016-17 season and was finally eligible for Bill Self in mid-December.
But he couldn’t crack the rotation. He got into 15 games, many of them in mop-up duty, and averaged just 4.9 minutes per contest. After the season, Self was honest with him and explained that his role might not change much in the future.
“He didn’t lie to me,” Cunliffe said. “I thought I was good enough to start there, but he didn’t.”
That’s when Cunliffe was contemplating just throwing in the towel with college basketball. He realized the mistake he made leaving Arizona State, and his confidence was shaken after the stint at Kansas.
“I was pretty low,” he admitted. “I was in a dark place, and basketball wasn’t fun anymore.”
Cunliffe went back home to Seattle and started playing pickup. McCarty was the first to call, but Cunliffe wasn’t mentally prepared yet. He didn’t return McCarty or any coach’s call for a few weeks.
“He was genuine,” Cunliffe said of McCarty, the former NBA-player-turned-coach. “I could tell how much he wanted me and my ability. He knew some guys in Seattle that I knew – Jamal Crawford and Isaiah Thomas. I didn’t know where Evansville was, or really care where it was. I just needed someone to believe in me.”
McCarty saw his name on the transfer wire and saw that he had put up numbers at Arizona State, and that he was on the team at Kansas. He made calls to Crawford and Thomas, who he coached as an assistant with the Celtics, and then went to work recruiting Cunliffe.
Cunliffe won’t lie. It’s been an adjustment going from Arizona State and Kansas to a small school with an enrollment of fewer than 3,000 students, but it’s been exactly what he needed to love basketball again.
McCarty said he had to kick Cunliffe out of practice a couple times last season, and that “he was getting in his own way.”
“He’s really grown up, and it’s so gratifying to see someone like Sam happy again,” McCarty said.
“It’s rejuvenated me,” Cunliffe admitted. “Everyone laughed at me when I told them where I was going, but it didn’t matter to me. I just needed to go somewhere where they wanted me so I could love basketball again.”
Cunliffe didn’t even start the game for an Evansville team that was picked eighth in the Missouri Valley Conference, but he wound up knocking down a couple 3-pointers and going into the locker room with 15 of his team’s 34 points as the Aces went into the break with confidence and a four-point lead. After Kentucky cut the deficit late in the game, Cunliffe made a pair of critical free throws with 6.8 seconds left to help seal the win.
“We made history,” he said. “It was unbelievable.”
Evansville was a 25-point underdog against a No. 1 Kentucky team that had knocked off former No. 1 Michigan State last week at Madison Square Garden. The Wildcats have been dominant at home, especially against unranked opponents, with this being the first loss in 53 games against an unranked team at Rupp Arena.
After the game, the calls and texts poured in for Cunliffe. But one in particular stood out, and that was the one he responded to first. It was a congratulatory text from Self.
“It’s been a long road for me and I know I made some mistakes,” Cunliffe said. “This wouldn’t have been possible tonight without everything I learned from him. He was tough on me, but that helped me do what I did tonight.”
Cunliffe’s performance should help eliminate the one question he’s fielded with regularity since he left KU.
“People ask me all the time if I still play basketball,” Cunliffe said. “No one knows about Evansville.”
They do now.