What a game! It had all the makings of a blow-out with UK up 12-0 by the first media timeout and Jim Calhoun already burning through two of his own (one 33 seconds in) and yanking star Jerome Dyson out of the game. But, the Huskies rallied and put UK on the ropes, tying the game at 18 and not letting UK regain the lead until the game was 9 minutes deep into the second half. When the final buzzer sounded, UK walked out of Madison Square Garden with a 9-0 record, a big-time win and a legend at the point. It was without a doubt one of the best basketball games I’ve seen in awhile.
A few notes:
(1) Well, we can just go ahead and get this out of the way. John Wall defies description. No superlative accurately describes what he means to this team and what he does so nonchalantly every game. As we saw during the UNC game, the difference he makes is drastic. He almost single-handedly jumped the Cats out to a 12-0 lead with 6 points and 3 steals before heading to the bench with two fouls. With Wall on the bench UConn came back, took control and entered halftime with a 29-23 thanks to Wall playing only nine minutes. He used an array of pull-up jumpers and layups and dunks (even a three) en route to 25 points, including 12 of Kentucky’s last 15. His signature play, though, came with UConn up 61-60 with 1:09 left, their first lead since 11:30. The Cats fell victim to a shot clock violation their previous possession and had come down this time and missed a three and then had the follow from Ramon Harris blocked out of bounds. Wall calmly took the ball at the top of the key, passed it to Darius Miller, who dribbled toward the elbow and dumped back to Wall who went to the rack and got an “And 1” layup. The basket and the subsequent free throw gave the Cats a 63-61 lead and sucked the air out of UConn’s sails.
Perhaps the most impressive non-statistical thing about Wall’s game, though, was the way he responded to Kemba Walker giving it his all (which was very good) and adjusting. On two plays in the second half, Wall was blocked (possibly a goaltend) and then stripped from behind on a breakaway, losing the ball when it bounced off his leg. The next time he went to the basket with a man on his trail, he went under the rim, using it as an offensive defender, finishing easily. The kid isn’t just talented. He understands the game.
(2) However, one thing that was painfully obvious at the end of the game was that Patrick Patterson still serves as the coach on the floor, calling plays and directing traffic from the post. To be honest, I’m not sure if that’s by design, but you’d think that Coach Cal would want that out of his point guard instead of his power forward. Too often in the second half, the Cats looked a little lost in the half-court and it was Patterson, not Wall or Bledsoe, trying to get everyone on the same page. Yes, we’re nit-picking here.
(3) Speaking of Patterson, #54 was again #54, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Patterson struggled in the first half, shooting 4 for 11 – a far cry from his 69% on the season, but still finished with 16 points. He left the game for a few minutes in the second half after awkwardly rolling a knee or an ankle (I couldn’t tell) but returned and played the final nine minutes.
(4) Keeping with that theme, DeMarcus Cousins was again DeMarcus Cousins. Boogie finished with a double-double, but played only 8 minutes in the first half because of foul trouble and never really seemed to get comfortable outside of a two minute stretch late in the second half when he got a couple of dunks. I love his attitude (most of the time) and his size is phenomenal, but there is no question he needs to develop a go-to post move – especially if they give him the ball late in the game instead of Patrick Patterson (not sure why). Too often, he’s just turning and throwing it up and, against a physical UConn team, it bit him in the tail a few times.
(5) At the risk of sounding like Matt Jones, Ramon Harris was a difference-maker tonight. His huge rebound with 13.9 seconds left and the free throw that followed that gave UK a 64-61 lead was great. However, his biggest contribution came on the defensive end as he made Jerome Dyson nearly non-existent in the second half, holding him to four points. Dyson became the latest victim of Ramonaphobia.
(6) Both UConn and Kentucky fans will agree that the fouls were both equally awful and awfully officiated throughout the game. The refs seemed to have an itchy whistle lip (like a trigger finger) when the Cats were on defense in the first half and it continued for both parties in the second. Both teams were in the bonus with 8:43 to go. With that being said, UK made some absolutely stupid fouls, most notably Eric Bledsoe’s reach-in with 2:20 left that sent him to the bench and Kemba Walker to the line with UK clinging to a 60-58 lead.
(7) Coach Cal did his “we’re not very good” routing in the post-game, but I’m not buying it. Good teams close out games and Kentucky has done it several times this year — twice this week against Final Four contenders. There is no substitute for a young team gaining type of experience. Whether he says they’re 5-4 or 4-5 or not going to make the Wildcard, I’m very pleased. And that’s all that matters, right?
(8) From a purely fan perspective, the effort from both teams was phenomenal tonight. The game had the feel of a Final Four game and you could tell that both teams wanted this game badly. Thought it was very sloppy, it was very emotional and very fast-paced. Bodies were flying and guys were tipping passes and diving for balls. They treated us to a great game.
(9) On the negative side, Kentucky’s rebounding was not good tonight. UConn has struggled this year with their board work and they out-rebounded the Cats. It seemed like UK got every long rebound off of a three-point attempt but couldn’t grab one in the paint until late in the game (which is when it matters, I guess). Some of it might have been by design as they appeared to only send one or two guys to the offensive glass in order to prevent UConn from getting easy points in transition, but I’m pretty sure Cal will not be pleased with the effort.
(10) This might be a minority opinion, but I thought the defensive effort was good for the most part. Kentucky looked committed on defense and a lot of their fouls came out of aggression. There were a lot of tipped passes and they forced UConn into 21 turnovers. John Wall had seven steals and Daniel Orton and Perry Stevenson helped seal off the middle when they were in the game, combining for 5 blocks. These defensive efforts allowed UK to make up for shooting worse from the field (45% to 39%) by getting extra possessions that gave them 13 additional shots. That ultimately proved to be huge. On the negative side, the big guys did look downright terrible trying to defend the pick and roll throughout the game, but they made adjustments late in the game to at least make the dribbler change direction. Overall, I think they’ve made drastic progress on the defensive end since the start of the season.
(11) I wrote this in the pre-game preview regarding the North Carolina game and I think it holds true again tonight. When Kentucky was down, when UConn was charging, it didn’t matter. I never got the feeling that UK would lose the game. We’ve spent the past 7, 8 years with that sinking feeling in our guts of “uh oh, we’re going to blow this”. That feeling is gone. It feels good.
(12) While we’re rambling along here, let’s just note that the John Wall hysteria is through the roof. Dick Vitale compared him to LeBron James as the only two players who came out of high school with the game to match the hype and Bucks rookie Brandon Jennings tweeted out: “John wall better then me??? Just asking that’s what I been hearing”. My UConn buddy Scott texted me and said that if John Wall stayed at UK all four years, there’s no question he’d hate him more than Tim Tebow. I take that as a compliment.
Overall, another strong performance from Calipari’s team and another feather in the cap of what is shaping out to be a very special team. Matt will be by with some more notes later (yes there is more), but until then, go buy a John Wall shot for all your closest friends and bask in this rebirth of Kentucky basketball. It’s fun again!