Well now that was fun. With my show ending at 9 pm, I was hesitant to get in the car and make the drive to Lexington just to see the second half. But something told me this would be a big night for the Cats, and it most certainly was. While I missed most of the sluggishness of the first half, what I saw in the second half was a team with unparallelled defensive intensity who, as Bruce Pearl said in the postgame “was the more passionate team.” Ramel Bradley stepped up as never before, playing defense on Chris Lofton that was the best we have seen from a UK player during Lofton’s illustrious career. The Big Orange went almost 14 minutes in the second half with just two field goals….an astounding achievement for Kentucky’s defense, considering the Orange firepower. The Wildcats took Tennessee out of their rhythm and then did enough on offense to pull out the game.
In my view, two plays truly stick out. The first was the defensive stand the Cats did while up two with 1:40 to play. Bradley continued his face guarding of Lofton and the Vols could not get the shots they had hoped on such a crucial play. The ball was left in the hands of Tyler Smith, who took a contested three pointer (with Stevenson on him) that could not have been one of the Vols’ best options. The long rebound came to Ramel Bradley, who crashed the boards and then immediately drew a foul with his aggressive/physical style of drawing contact. Bruce Pearl pointed to this possession at the end of the game, suggesting that by drawing that foul, Kentucky was able to up the lead from 2 to 4 at a critical time in the game and take control of the contest. The great defense and rebounding effort of that play symbolized the Cats’ entire second half and was a reason for the victory.
The second play however was one that I noticed, but that Coach Gillispie raved about in the post-game press conference. With just 15 seconds to go and the Cats up 8, a rebound came off a Tennessee miss and Derrick Jasper and Jodie Meeks both dove on the floor to get the ball. Coach Clyde pointed out this play after the game, noting that both young men had been injured and players with lesser character may have just assumed the game was over. Seeing these guys dive on the floor caused him to clap and smile on the sidelines and in the postgame he said it was “the most proud” he had been of the team all season. For this coach, effort is key and no play more symbolized the Cats’ effort tonight.
Ultimately, this game was simply fun. Rupp was raucous and people were dancing all over the building. The press room was filled with people once again and those with Kentucky ties all had large smiles on their face. The magic was there, in part, because the Cats looked like a team who could play with the elite Vols. Gillispie was almost giddy (at least as giddy as he can be) in the post-game and noted how proud he was of the team. As a fan, that emotion should also ring true…..16 straight free throw made to end the game and the Cats take down one of the 6 or 7 best teams in the country….the loss to San Diego seems a long time ago indeed.
RAMEL DISRESPECT: Ramel Bradley said there was some added motivation in the game based on the attitudes of the nouveau riche players from Knoxville. “We were focused and intense before the game and then during the pregame shootaround, when you see guys still got their earrings in like they arent taking it seriously, well I thought they were being disrespectful.” Bradley said that he didnt believe the Vol players were taking the game seriously and he wanted to show them that Kentucky was still Kentucky. When I asked him if he took that attitude and jawed a bit with the players on the court, he said, “thats always there with those guys. But at the end of the game I could tell they were tight.” I asked if he was tight and he smiled and said, “Nah, I got ice water in my veins.” Gotta love Smooth…..
GILLISPIE COMMENTS: Here are a few comments from the Coach:
— Coach praised Joe Crawford for recognizing that his injury made him too hurt to go and taking himself out. “The way we won was perfect because Joe was in pain and we still stepped up.” He said that taking oneself out in such a situation shows a true team player and illustrates that “Joe is becoming a great leader.”
— Gillispie was thrilled with the crowd in Rupp. “Tonight we had the best 6th man in the history of college basketball.” He said that he thought the crowd was great against Vandy but that he said with a sly smile that he wanted “much better effort” tonight and he got it.
— Gillispie believed that “the story of the game was our defense in the paint.” He thought that while stopping Tennessee’s three point shooters was important, they simply couldnt allow the Vols to get easy buckets down low. Stopping these baskets was what he believed the crucial difference was in the second half.
— Gillispie once again praised Patrick Patterson for a great effort, calling him “an unbelievable player.” He also joked that he sat Patrick for 30 seconds, which was “the most he has rested in a conference game. He should be rested now for Saturday.”
PEARL AND THE REFS: While being very careful in his comments, the insinuation from Coach Pearl was that he was unhappy with some officiating late. He made a point to note that often Tennessee had to earn points after Kentucky just made a couple of free throws. He also insinuated that the foul that Ramel drew with the Cats up two was bogus and a difference maker. While he made no direct comments that could lead to a fine, you could tell he was not happy. Having said that, he once again praised Rupp Arena and the Kentucky fans saying, “when you come here, you owe it to the place to give maximum effort.”
FAMILY Of the four players who came out after the game, three used the word “family” to describe the team at this point. Patrick Patterson said, “this season is all about coming together as family. We are doing it every day by being more passionate and intense. That is what is making us closer.”
All in all, a great win and a great night for Kentucky basketball. Tomorrow, we will have a video post-game cast I did with some reporters for the UK television station (a new feature) and more on the game and where the Cats stand. For now, celebrate….