(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
There are days that Rupp Arena just feels special. Today was that kind of day. From Saturday morning on, the area around Rupp buzzed with anxiety, and the crowd was one of the best I can ever remember. It’s been a long, long time since Kentucky fans have had something to really get excited about. With Louisville coming off the best year in their history, the Big Blue Nation was practically rabid for a win, and they got one. Tonight, a young team came into their own in front of 24,396 fans, the ninth-largest crowd in Rupp Arena history. Here’s my take on UK’s 73-66 win over the Cards:
1. Julius Randle only played one half, but he dominated it
Julius Randle came in to this game on a mission. Randle had 17 points in the first half off 7-8 shooting from the field. After balking at the big stage in Dallas and Chapel Hill, Julius was ready this time around, practically calling for the ball on occasion. He had one dunk early in the first half that practically brought the house down, and with the offense centered around him, the Cats looked superb.
Unfortunately, cramping issues sidelined Julius for all but four minutes in the second half. Julius went to the locker room in pain, but returned and tried to go in the game only to take himself out seconds later. After the game, Cal said that the trainers gave Julius three IV bags of fluid to get rid of his cramps, joking that the doctor was “squeezing it in” so he could return. Something tells me Julius will be receiving a large bunch of bananas before the next game.
2. Rupp Arena heard Alex roar
In Julius’ place, Alex Poythress turned in another impressive performance, putting up seven points and pulling down five rebounds. Even more, Alex played with aggression, throwing down a particularly nasty dunk with a roar through Rupp Arena. “Playing without Julius, I thought Alex was unbelievable,” Cal raved. “But he’s been doing it in practice. He’s never been like this.”
3. The guards were brilliant
If you had told me before the game that the Cats would be able to beat Louisville with Julius Randle on the bench, I would have laughed at you. However, UK’s guards stepped up to make that happen. James Young, Aaron Harrison, and Andrew Harrison played beyond their years, especially in the second half. After Russ Smith and Chris Jones lit it up in the first half, Andrew Harrison buckled down and took control in the second, looking as poised as he ever has as a Cat. Under Andrew’s hand, the Cats were able to finish off a top opponent, something they had failed to do thus far.
Now if he could just make his free throws…
4. The star of the game was James Young
While Randle’s first half was mighty, James Young was the reason the Cats won. Young started off cold, missing his six first shots, but connected for a big three on number seven. From there, he warmed up, finishing with 18 points and ten rebounds. What I love about James’ performance was that even when he was cold, he was doing things to help the team out, like rebound and hustle. His energy was infectious tonight.
5. “Look like a team. Play like a team. Fight like a team.”
Cal wrote those words on the board in the locker room before the game, and said it was the only game plan he gave to his players. What was the difference between the team that beat Louisville and the team that lost to Michigan State, Baylor, and North Carolina? They played together.
“This team is becoming a good team. We haven’t been all year. Now we’re starting. Why? Because they knew if they didn’t play together, we wouldn’t have a shot.”
James Young said that the Cats were “tired of losing” and fans should expect to see “a lot more” performances like today’s. Cal reminded reporters that “This is the youngest team I’ve ever coached” before adding “I thought we grew up today.”
6. You can’t say enough about the crowd
I could write 1,0000,000 words about today’s crowd. I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of games in Rupp and the crowd today was the best it’s ever been. The eRupption Zone was packed an hour and a half before tip-off, and the students did their part, bringing in some truly hilarious signs. Even before the game started, there was a feeling in the air that Kentucky NEEDED this win, and the crowd did its best to help them get it. Rupp Arena is a special place on nights like tonight, and Cal acknowledged it afterwards, calling the crowd “nuts” for showing up an hour before tip:
“The crowd was great. People are crazy. It was crazy. I mean, it’s nuts. I’m hoping they enjoyed it.”
As James Young said after the game, the crowd “should be like that every time.”
7. Balance has been restored
In true Rick fashion, Pitino refused to do his postgame presser at the podium like everyone else and only took a few questions from reporters outside the locker room. When asked how his team handled the loud crowd, Pitino quipped that the “Referees were affected by it more than my players.” It’s only fitting that the Year of the Cardinal ended with a whine.
It’s good to be back.