(Photo © Mark Zerof)
Say it with me: “Phew.” I don’t think anyone anticipated that kind of game tonight. Kentucky looked as bad as they have ever looked in the first three fourths of the game, down by as much as eleven. With about seven minutes left and the realization that this team may actually lose to Cleveland State settling over the Big Blue Nation, the Cats woke up, going on a 24-7 run in the last 7:08 to put finally put the Vikings away 68-61. Let’s break the game down by the first thirty-three minutes and the last seven.
THE FIRST 33 MINUTES
Kentucky looked completely out of it in the first half. Just another slow start, right? Wrong. Kentucky trailed Cleveland State 31-27 at the half. What was wrong? Were the players’ minds already on Thanksgiving break or was this the latest and most troubling example of a lackluster break from the gates? Every one of UK’s 27 points in the first half came from either the paint (14) or the free throw line (13). Andrew Harrison got into foul trouble early in the first half, and from then on, the Cats really stunk on offense, shooting a paltry 26.9% off 7-26 shooting, including 0-6 from the three-point line. The second half start wasn’t much better, with Cleveland State going on a 7-0 run to extend the lead to 11 at the 14 minute mark, their biggest lead of the game. What happened?
Yet again, Cal chalked it up to the other team wanting it more:
“You can’t let a team come out and have way more emotion than you. You can’t. This is not about who looks the coolest. This is about who wants it the most when the ball is thrown up.”
Another problem Cal continues to mention is the team’s lack of communication, telling reporters that Rod Strickland came into the locker room at halftime and noted it as well: “They don’t talk to each other out on the court. They’re all into their own thing. When you’re into your own thing, it’s really hard to play basketball.” Did you notice some bad body language tonight? In his postgame remarks to Tom Leach, Cal expressed concern that his team wasn’t having any fun, in large part because they weren’t playing for their teammates. The most fun they had was when they finally came together in the last seven minutes and played as a team.
“You try to be cool verses show some passion and emotion in what you’re doing,” Cal said. “Especially if everyone else is bringing it. Our fans jumped on it, our players then showed it. My question: why don’t you start the game like that?”
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Kentucky was almost outrebounded by a much smaller opponent. For a good part of the game, Cleveland State both outhustled and outrebounded Kentucky, with the Cats winning the final margin 42-35. While the final stat doesn’t really reflect how frustrating Kentucky’s performance on the boards was, there is no excuse for a big, tall, and long team like Kentucky to get beaten to the ball as many times as they did tonight.
Zone gives this team problems
Whether it be poor effort, poor rebounding, or Andrew Harrison being on the bench, this team doesn’t respond well to zone, especially if it’s not shooting well from the outside. With Andrew in foul trouble, Cleveland State controlled the tempo, leaving the Cats standing around looking lost on the court. Trouble against the zone, along with poor perimeter defense are becoming unfortunate hallmarks of this squad, something the teams on the rest of the schedule are noticing.
Thankfully, the game didn’t end there.
THE FINAL SEVEN MINUTES
Kentucky went on a 24-7 run in the last 7:08 of the game. That run was sparked by a lob from Andrew Harrison to Willie Cauley-Stein, who was fouled and made his free throw to cut the lead to seven, 54-47. From there, the crowd gave the Cats some life, and the Harrison Twins went to work. The most important play of the game? Tied at 57 with two minutes left, Andrew Harrison drove the lane, scored, and was fouled. He hit his free throw to put UK up by three and give them the lead for good. That was the Andrew Harrison we’ve been waiting for. Cal agrees: “I thought Andrew made the plays, and it’s nice to know we’ve got two or three guys now we can go to.” James Young said that in the stretch, Andrew was a leader: “He was being more of a leader. He really stood out. He directed us a lot and told us where to go and what to do. He really stepped up.” As Andrew goes, this team goes, and hopefully he’ll stay in that final gear he found at the end of the game.
While James Young didn’t shoot well, Cal applauded his effort, telling reporters he liked how he hard he fought towards the end: “James Young just fought like crazy and came up with balls when we were dead. If they got those balls, we would lose. That’s why I looked at the other guys and I say, ‘Fight like he’s fighting.’” Young said that he was spurred on by the crowd’s support, calling it something he had never felt before:
“I have never felt something like this. It was amazing. I want this feeling when we are not down. I want it to be like that all of the time. I have never felt something like that before.”
To inspire more toughness, Cal is ramping up the intensity in practices, telling the media he “went back to old school UMass stuff” for the last three days, getting Alex Poythress’ heart rate up to 90% for the first time since he’s been at UK. Willie Cauley-Stein stood up and made some big plays, along with Julius Randle, who notched his sixth-straight double double of the year. However, this night was all about Andrew.
This was a “Come to Jesus” moment
Afterwards, Cal called this “the game we needed” to bend his players’ will to the changes they must make to be a championship-caliber squad. Right now, Kentucky is not a great team. Simply put. Too many mistakes, too many deer-in-the-headlights moments and not enough people making plays. Andrew Harrison finally gave us a glimpse of his “stone cold killer” persona we’ve heard about, but that doesn’t dismiss the errors and poor execution in the first three fourths of the game. Cal said that his players needed this game to “change how they approach the games, how they think about the games, their mentality of the games.” This group can be special, but all of that depends on whether or not Andrew Harrison builds on this performance.