It’s gonna take a while to wind down from that one. The best way to cap off an exciting day in Rupp Arena? The most exciting game of the season. In front of one of the best crowds in Rupp Arena history, the Cats outlasted Missouri in a thrilling overtime win, 90-83. Before my adrenaline succumbs to exhaustion, let’s run through the win that may have saved Kentucky’s postseason:
— Your Werther’s Original Player of the Game: Julius Mays. Mays earned the best BenGay massage of his life tonight. Before this season started, would you have believed that a transfer from Wright State would be this team’s saving grace? We always knew that his veteran presence would help this young squad, but Mays has taken ownership of the team, putting them on his weary back and dragging them to the finish. Uncle Julius had a UK career-high 24 points tonight off 6-12 shooting, including 4-8 from the behind the arc. Eight of those points came during overtime when the Cats needed it the most. Mays is stepping up in more ways than one, and told reporters after the game that he stopped Cal from correcting Ryan Harrow at one point tonight because he knew it would throw off Ryan’s confidence. Goodwin said this of Mays after the game: “He’s a great leader and he’s a great big brother to me. He’s like my best friend.” His off-the-court leadership was matched by on-the-court performance, and once again, Julius saved the day, playing all but one minute of the game and going so hard that he hobbled off the court with cramps. Julius, please go put your feet up and enjoy another rerun of “Matlock.”
— We’ve been hesitant to use the term “breakout game” this season because of the team’s inconsistency, but it’s hard not to use it for Alex Poythress’ performance tonight. Poythress was a beast, scoring 21 points off 8-10 shooting and grabbing 7 rebounds. With Nerlens out, the Cats needed someone else to step up and help Willie Cauley-Stein in the post, and Poythress rose to the challenge. Poythress showed us some of that NBA potential, fighting through double teams and finishing shots with ease. After the game, Calipari said it was the best Alex had played all season and that the difference between his play before and now is that they can run plays for him. In short, he was a G.A.M. (Grown A** Man). Even better? He knows it. “I felt comfortable today. I felt like I could step up if they needed me. I felt like I could make a play if I had to.”
— On Wednesday, we saw what a difference both Ryan Harrow and Archie Goodwin playing well can have on this team. Tonight, double that. As Cal put it, “when our guards play well, we will win.” Harrow was particularly impressive, posting 16 points, 8 rebounds, and six assists. Harrow came out of the gate at a sprint, scoring three of the Cats’ first four buckets and slashing through the lane. Missouri’s Phil Pressey is good. Real good. But instead of shrinking into the shadows, Harrow refused to back down and went right at Pressey. Many of us had given up on Harrow a few games ago, but tonight, Harrow showed us he’s not ready to give up. How important is Harrow to this team? UK is 10-0 this season when he has at least four assists. Even more, Kentucky’s guards combined for a whopping 58 points tonight.
— Can’t wipe that grin off your face? Neither can Archie Goodwin. Goodwin had an erratic game, at times brilliant and at times typical “Arghchie,” but his energy fed the team (and the crowd) throughout the game. Afterwards, Archie said that tonight was the most fun he’s had all season. Are there any sweeter words in the world right now to a Kentucky fan?
— Maybe these:
Loved the way my team fought tonight ! Proud of y’all. #BBN
— Nerlens Noel (@NerlensNoel3) February 24, 2013
— Willie Cauley-Stein made his presence known in the post, grabbing a career-high 12 rebounds and blocking a career-high seven shots. Going in to this game, we knew rebounding would be key. Missouri butters their bread with it. After being outrebounded 27-18 in the first half, the Cats won the boards 23-12 in the second half and overtime. All in all, Kentucky won the rebounding battle, 41-39.
— Raise your hand if your heart dropped into your stomach when Julius didn’t pass the ball to Archie Goodwin at the end of regulation. Me too. Cal three: “How many of you wanted to throw up when Julius didn’t throw it ahead in regulation?” We’ll forgive you, Uncle.
— Don’t lie, at some point tonight you fantasized about what it might be like to have Alex Oriakhi on this team. It’s okay. One of the most satisfying things about tonight’s win is that it came against a really good team. This isn’t Vanderbilt–Missouri is good and if this win doesn’t get you excited about this squad, then you need to have your heart checked.
— Speaking of heart, the Cats showed it in spades this evening. Cal said that the loss to Tennessee took away the Cats’ heart and soul and smashed it. The difference between the team that lost to Tennessee and the team that beat Missouri in overtime? Perseverance: “What I told them after, what I’ve been trying to tell them all year, guys, if you miss a shot or turn it over or break down defensively, forget about it and just keep battling. They did a lot of that today.”
— Cal said the Cats also held each other accountable for their mistakes, which has not only spurred their play on the court, but brought them closer together: “They’re starting to be empowered where they’re holding each other accountable. …It’s better coming from a teammate than me. It is. They take it better.”
— Finally, major props to the Rupp Arena crowd tonight. They did this arena and program justice. The fans got here early, were loud from the tip, and stayed til the very end. Cal noticed: “This was as good a crowd and as impactful a crowd as I’ve ever coached in a building. This team needs that. Like the next game, they need to come back and do that again.” #bluehairdocare
It’s been an overwhelming day, from the GameDay festivities to an overtime win that may take us to the Big Dance. Relish it. We’ll see you in the morning.