[Ed. Note: To coincide with the UK Sports Network’s replay of the 2011 Kentucky-Ohio State Sweet 16 game, KSR is sharing posts from that night, including the original comments. Enjoy.]
Wow. What a feeling. I’ve been trying to think of a bigger win for the Cats in the last ten years or so and I can’t come up with one. Kentucky entered the game in the rare role of an underdog and they had the closest thing to a dominant team in the tournament on the opposing sideline. What resulted was a beautifully complete performance that was as gutsy as we’ve seen. There’s a lot to celebrate and a lot of time to do it. But first, a few quick notes…
– In what has been a series of outstanding performances, Josh Harrellson stood the tallest when faced with his biggest individual challenge Friday night in Newark. Kentucky’s hopes for a victory hinged on his tattooed shoulder blades and he did more than just not get torched or commit fouls. Josh Harrellson starred. Though Jared Sullinger had 21 points and 16 rebounds, Harrellson’s 17 and 10 carried a heavier impact for a team that desperately needed someone to step up in the first half and was getting little from their star players. His defense down the stretch was excellent (smacking the ball out on the final play was brilliant) and when he spiked the ball off of Sullinger like it was an elementary dodgeball game, the message was sent. Kentucky wasn’t backing down. After the game, Calipari said “I have done this a long time and I am not sure that I have ever been this proud of a young man”. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t feel the same way. In fact, on two separate occasions, I nearly woke my wife up for the sole purpose of conceiving a child and naming him Joshua Harrellson Beisner. I love that kid.
– Just as Josh Harrellson stepped up when his team needed him most, DeAndre Liggins was phenomenal in playing the role of defensive mindfreak and attacking Jon Diebler when he was matched up with him offensively. Liggins finished with 15 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks, but did big work late in the game when his team was still looking for someone to step up. He either scored or assisted on 11 of UK’s last 16 points and pushed UK ahead by three points with two free throws and a jumper before Diebler hit a trifecta and set up Knight’s final shot. Much like Harrellson, his evolution as a player has mirrored this team’s improvement down the stretch and it’s a wonderful thing. Here’s hoping he told Sullinger to “Smile now” after the game.
– It wasn’t his finest night, but again Brandon Knight played the role of stone-cold killer with a game-winner. All year, Brandon Knight talked confidently about his ability to take and make the big shots, even after some didn’t fall for him. All game, you knew the shots were going to fall and when the final jumper left his hands, you knew it was going in. Brandon Knight just has that “it” factor late in the game. He can miss the first 20 shots of the game, but he won’t waver. He has an NBA mentality in that sense and his teammates know it. You give me any team in the country matched up with Brandon Knight in the game’s final possession and I’m taking Knight. He’s just a killer like that. It’s also worth noting that with his final game-winning shot, he passed John Wall for the single-season freshman scoring record.
– All week long, we talked about how UK would need to execute on a number of things to have a shot to win the game. Friday night, they executed as flawlessly as they have all season. They contested Ohio State’s jumpers and clogged the middle on drives, holding the Buckeyes to only 32.8% from the field. The held the Buckeyes’ X-factor, William Buford, to nine points on 2-16 shooting. Josh Harrellson kept Jared Sullinger from exploding. Offensively, they hit their three-point shots and found some contributions from their veterans. Save for a lack of production from their freshmen, it was essentially a perfect game. If you’re purely looking at defense, that’s exactly what it was. For a team that struggled with execution in the conference slate of games, it’s another sign of the growth that’s making them a force in late March. I have a feeling the coaches are very, very happy. Good work on that gameplan, Robic.
– Speaking of defense, the Cats blocked 11 shots. Eleven. For a team that lacks a pure shot-blocker, the number was phenomenal and a testament to the commitment to team defense. Outstanding stat.
– All season we’ve heard about Kentucky’s freshmen and the concerns about them not having the type of big game experience that can often make a difference in March. That’s not the case any longer. Friday was a Final Four-like environment in Newark and the Cats rose to the test. Both teams probably shouldn’t have been playing each other this early in the tournament, but the big matchup made for bigger emotions and a bigger stage. And Kentucky prevailed. Calipari has always said that he doesn’t feel like freshmen are still freshmen at this point. After Friday’s win, it’s hard to classify anyone on this roster lacking in tournament experience. And when facing a UNC squad that cruised easily against Marquette, that could make a huge difference.
– We won’t get too much into this because I don’t want to be the guy that complains, but the officiating was perplexing for a majority of the game. There was an odd technical on Calipari, which could have made an enormous difference had the Buckeyes converted on the free throws and ensuing possession, but the most frustrating thing seemed to be the inconsistency in the charge/block calls. We’ve seen it all year across all of college basketball and, unfortunately, it seems like nothing will change without a massive embarrassment in the Final Four of some kind, so Kentucky will have to play through it like everyone else. But, it’s frustrating to say the least. Having said that, though, the Cats responded well after five guys were saddled with two fouls in the first half, including Terrence Jones getting two before your second beer was opened. Playing through those things is a sign of maturity. See a theme here?
– Kentucky was able to take advantage of the Liggins/Diebler matchup offensively and tried to get Darius going on the block again, but it was the pick-and-roll that proved to be a deadly weapon for them. Josh Harrellson seems to have mastered the art and benefited greatly with a variety of dunks and layups (one of them a running floater). What we’ve seen over the past few games is an ever evolving offensive repertoire, which is making them increasingly difficult to match up with. Without a true scorer outside of Knight, those things are very valuable. Friday, the pick-and-roll was a thing of beauty.
– Don’t look now, but we finally found a reason for the SkyCam. The postgame victory shot. Otherwise, keep it locked up somewhere.
– On a personal note, I experienced both the highest and lowest point of my Twitter existence. Seriously, Mr. B? United Kingdom? C’mon, man. Wrong UK.
That’s it for now. We’ll be back in the morning (or, later, I suppose) with more on the greatness that was Friday night and what to expect for Sunday. Make sure you join us. It’s going to be fun. In the meantime, let’s appreciate one freshman who had his “A” game going all night. Get ’em, Stacey!
See you in a few…