LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky freshman forward Zvonimir Ivišić was cleared to play by the NCAA on Saturday, ending a prolonged eligibility process that had frustrated Wildcats coach John Calipari along with the fan base.
He celebrated by showing impressive glimpses of what the Kentucky faithful had been waiting for.
The 7-foot-2 Croatian, considered a top international prospect, happily announced the decision Saturday with a video on X, formerly known as Twitter. Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart also posted about Ivišić's eligibility and thanked university and athletic department staffers along with the sport’s governing body for “working through this.”
Ivišić enrolled in October and has practiced and dressed for games with the No. 8 Wildcats as the NCAA examined his amateur status. Neither the school nor the governing body has commented on the specifics of his case, but the Lexington Herald-Leader reported last fall that he had played for a Montenegro-based professional team and that information was being gathered on whether the level of compensation would jeopardize his amateur status in the United States.
Calipari had been frequently asked about the player's status before and during Southeastern Conference play, which continued Saturday with Kentucky's 105-96 victory over Georgia.
Ivišić debuted after four minutes to big cheers in sold-out Rupp Arena and then showed surprising form with a series of first-half highlights, starting with a no-look, behind-the-back pass to Antonio Reeves for a 3-pointer. He followed with three 3s and another jumper that broke the game open for an eventual 54-35 halftime advantage. He finished with 13 points, five rebounds and two assists in 16 minutes.
Ivišić was mobbed by teammates during the first stoppage in play.
“It was amazing," he said. "I didn’t know how to react. Everybody just jumping on me, hitting me, screaming, laughing. I was just like, it was a great moment.”
Ivišić, who shot 5 of 7 overall and 3 of 4 from long range, also had some teaching moments. He received a flagrant-1 foul in the first half and a technical foul in the second for hanging on the rim after a dunk.
“I’m still kind of knowing the rules," he added. "I don’t know, like every rule here, so, my bad, coach.”
Kentucky fans around and outside Lexington had taken up Ivišić's eligibility as a cause, with some sporting blue T-shirts saying “Free Big Z!”. One group claimed to have raised money for a #FREEBIGZ billboard outside the NCAA’s Indianapolis headquarters.
Now that Big Z is on the court, Calipari has a third 7-footer alongside Aaron Bradshaw and Ugonna Onyenso.
“He’s got a ways to go,” Calipari said. “But it was a good start for him. It took a long, long time, but I appreciate the work everybody did to make it happen.”
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