If today’s game at Rupp Arena was Texas A&M’s Super Bowl, senior guard Elston Turner is hoisting the Lombardi Trophy high in the air after an unstoppable performance on the big stage. Book the tickets to Disney World; he is the MVP. Turner scored 40 points in A&M’s 83-71 upset win against the Wildcats, although the game was much closer than the final score represents. It was a tie game with four minutes to play before Turner stuck a dagger in his opponents with a three-pointer, his sixth of the game, and took the wind out of UK’s sails for the closing minutes. It was just too much Turner for 40 minutes and not enough fight in the Cats to contain him or respond on the other end.
The loss means Kentucky is now a bubble team for the 2013 NCAA Tournament. With zero quality wins through 15 games and very few opportunities to get one on the SEC schedule, the Wildcats can’t afford to drop many more games — and definitely not one at home — for the rest of the season. There is still a lot of basketball to played, but we could be on our way to a very unfamiliar situation at the SEC Tournament where Kentucky has to run the table to make the field of 64.
Elston Turner’s performance is one of those we’ll be talking about years from now, as an example of how opponents play out of their minds against Kentucky in Rupp Arena. Move over, Crispin brothers. Turner just stole your Rupp Arena glory. The son of Elston Turner Sr., an assistant coach for the Phoenix Suns, hung 40 on Kentucky in the best individual outing by an opponent in Lexington since Pistol Pete’s 64 points in 1970. He shot 14-of-19 from the field, including 6-of-10 from downtown, and threw in six rebounds and four assists to round it out. It was one of those days where all you can do as a fan is shake your head in amazement at how your team is getting abused. It didn’t matter what Kentucky threw at him, who Kentucky threw at him, how many Kentucky threw at him, or where he stood on Cawood’s court; Elston Turner was shooting and Elston Turner wasn’t missing very often. It was Dwyane Wade all over again. It was Meeks’ 51 in Knoxville, only we were Bobby Maze and Tennessee. It was just one of those days.
Calipari admitted to making a mistake by putting Poythress on Turner early and waiting too late to make an adjustment. “From that point on, he was getting 50,” Cal said of the matchup. Archie did a decent job defending Turner away from the ball after they switched, but once it was in Turner’s hands, it didn’t really matter who was guarding him. One play stands out in particular, when Willie Cauley-Stein clapped his hands in the face of Turner after he forced him to give the ball up. Turner reset, got the ball right back, stepped back a few feet, and drained a three-pointer in Willie’s eye from somewhere near Mr. Kan’s Chinese Food in the bottom of the Civic Center. We knew we were in for a show after that.
The hardest part in watching Kentucky go down to Turner and A&M is that Nerlens Noel didn’t deserve to lose after the way he played. As great as Turner was from the field for A&M, Noel was almost just as great in all aspects of the game for Kentucky. We praise Nerlens for his hustle after every game, but very few compare to the effort he gave in the loss to the Aggies. Noel recorded his second double-double of the season with 15 points and 11 rebounds. He set career-highs in assists and blocks with six and seven, respectively. Kentucky’s four steals? All Nerlens. Kentucky’s seven blocks? All Nerlens. The heartbeat that kept the team alive and in the game when Elston Turner had his foot on their throats? Nerlens. Nerlens. Nerlens. He played like a Player of the Year candidate and the tape from the game will be Exhibit A in the case for why he should be the No. 1 draft pick in June. You just can’t say enough about how well he played today.
If Nerlens’ production on the court wasn’t enough to impress you, his comments after the game will have you ready to reconsider your lifelong commitment to an exclusive obsession with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Nerlens had strong words about his teammates and what they need to do to turn this thing around. He said, “It’s time we take responsibility. Coach Cal has done a lot for us, but I feel it’s time for us, as a team, to start coming around, clicking, and doing what we have to do.” He would add, “There’s a time, that us as players, have to start taking responsibility and I feel that time is now.” It sounds like Nerlens is ready to put this team on his back. We can only hope the others join him in turning it around, and not weigh him down.
Despite what Calipari said about his defensive effort on Turner early, Poythress played a pretty solid game. I think it’s time we accept 12 points and six rebounds from Alex, rather than continuing to place unrealistic expectations on him. He still looks like he’s out there giving minimal effort, but the constant criticism from fans and verbal abuse from Calipari, which we saw a lot of today, hasn’t made a difference thus far so I don’t know see a reason to keep putting the pressure on him. Sometimes I worry Cal is being too hard on Poythress during games. Then again, Calipari gets paid to coach and evaluate these players and I get paid to photoshop pictures of Alan Cutler, so my opinion holds very little frozen yogurt.
I did notice a couple of instances when Poythress’s teammates would go out of their way to give him a shove after big plays. All four guys got a pretty powerful shove in following a dunk, like they were asking him to shove them back and show some emotion. They’re certainly trying to get the excitement out of him, one way or another.
Calipari praised Willie Cauley-Stein during his postgame radio interview, but not for his hustle or defense, like you’d expect. No, Cal was proud of the way Willie stood up for himself when the A&M players tried to bully the UK freshmen while holding the lead. Cal said, “What I liked, is the guys got up in Willie’s face and talked trash, and he talked back. You’ve gotta stand your ground.” The Aggies were talking a lot of trash and, like Cal said, Kentucky didn’t hesitate to fire back. No one likes a team that talks too much, but no one wants to see their team backpedal when it happens to them, either. I noticed Harrow jawing a couple times with his man too. Unfortunately, their wasn’t enough fight in the Wildcats’ game to keep up with their verbal assault.
After losing the rebounding battle to Vanderbilt, the worst rebounding team in the conference, the Cats came out and lost on the boards again. Texas A&M out-rebounded Kentucky, 35-30. Be ready to hear the same spiel from Calipari on Monday about his team not wanting it more than their opponents. “They have to fight for those balls.”
The real loser in all this? The Tennessee Volunteers. It’s hard to imagine Kentucky not coming out and beating the brakes off the Volunteers on Tuesday.
Before we go, I’d like to give a shout-out to Rose, one of our favorite radio callers, and her husband Chubb. They were given two seats to the game for the role they played in making the West Liberty fundraiser happen.
“Give me a thumbs up with your broken wrist if you think Turner needs to quit shooting.”