Now that we have Saturday completed, it is time to acknowledge something out loud. The last 18 months of UK Athletics since the National Championship have pretty much sucked. There have been a couple of random highlights…the hiring of Mark Stoops was exciting, the huge crowd at the Spring Game was unique and beating Missouri for College Gameday had Rupp Arena rocking. But when we make highlight films for intro videos of UK Athletics’ events over the next few years, very little from June 2012-December 27, 2013 is going to find its way in the package. The end of the Joker era, the rebuilding process in football and the NIT year that we all hope to forget, spliced in with the “Year of the Cardinal,” made these 18 months painful for any Big Blue Nation member. Something needed to get us out of the funk and back to the more joyous rocking times around Lexington.
Then Saturday happened. Saturday was the type of day that makes being a Kentucky fan great. From the earliest moments, Rupp Arena had that special ambiance that happens when magic memories are on the horizon. Our KSR Pregame Show began three hours before tipoff in the Rupp Arena Food Court and from the very opening lines, the place was packed. A buzz permeated the building as we previewed UK/UL, with greats like Jack Givens, Kenny Walker, James Lee and Kyle Macy milling between Arby’s and Mr. Kang’s Chinese Food. If you have been fortunate enough to attend a number of games at Rupp Arena, you know when the place is going to be rocking, and as I walked onto the court a hour before the game, it was clear this was one of those special days. Every seat in the arena was filled 30 minutes before the start. Fans stood and watched the pregame activities with anticipation…they erupted every time the Cats ran out on the court and the building stayed energetic, even when nothign was taking place. The student section taunted the UL players with every missed shot during warmups and Rick Pitino received a hearty booing the moment he appeared through the tunnel. As every second ticked towards tipoff, the arena grew louder and it culminated in one of the best videos I have seen the UK folks ever do, a pre-game series of images from great wins over Louisville in the past from Rex to Cedric to Mash to Derek Anderson to Patrick Sparks to Jorts to Davis, culminating in a “what will be the next one?” question that caused the roof to nearly blow off the place. For all the complaints about the in-arena environment, the pre-game scene on Saturday was magical and exactly why we all love cheering on the Cats.
Once the game started, the excitement quickly switched over into nervousness. Louisville’s 8-0 run to start the game led many (myself included) to wonder if we were headed for another disappointing day, this time on our home court to our hated rival. But then slowly, things changed. The way Julius Randle played in the first half showcased why he is a projected Top Three pick. He was simply unguardable and he made a mockery out of every defender Louisville sent his way. Whether it was Harrell, Behanan, Mango, “Indefinitely Suspended” Akoy or (hilariously) Luke Hancock, Randle bullied them all, even as they desperately hung on his arms at every move. After the game Pitino said that no one in America was helped more by the new rules than Julius Randle, implying that he gets calls he does not deserve. The truth is actually in the other direction, as up close it is clear that Randle is fouled on nearly every drive to the basket and gets only a small percentage of the whistles. But the fact that he fights through the contact and can finish with such a soft touch is amazingly impressive. He is a beast and with every basket he made in that late first half run, the Rupp crowd clearly grew more confident, sensing a special performance was taking place.
Russ Smith’s dunk notwithstanding (that was mighty impressive), the first half went about as well as Kentucky fan could have imagined. But the second half followed the lead of the first, as UK began with a thud. Louisville scored quickly and Julius Randle pulled up with cramps, immediately changing Rupp Arena’s mood. As Randle passed me on the sidelines on his way to the locker room, I was hard pressed to think of a way Kentucky could win the game. Not only had Kentucky not finished games well all season, but the Cats had lost the best player on the floor, one who was having a dominant game. During the first timeout, while I was in the back trying to get information, I told Tom Leach and Mike Pratt that this was the time for the Twins and James Young to make names for themselves. Pratt agreed, and added that Alex Poythress would have to fill in Randle’s void as much as possible. And over the next 15 minutes of game play, that is what they all did. While not playing perfect (and missing WAYYYYYY too many free throws), the guards got to the basket, finished with authority and played admirable defense, to extend Kentucky’s lead and keep a cushion over the slumping Cards. Throughout that time frame, as fans in the stands wondered if Randle would return, Rupp Arena urged on UK with a passion that gave me chills. I looked up at one point, with six minutes to go and Kentucky clinging to a seven point lead and thought, “this is one of those games everyone here will remember.” Those brutal missed free throws caused the last six minutes to seemingly take 5 hours, but as the final seconds ticked down, Pitino grew angrier with the officials and the UK bench jumped with jubilation, it felt like an almost perfect night.
We all know that this team still has many questions to answer and it isn’t yet clear that they are capable of giving us #9. But for one night, they gave us the joy we have been waiting 18 months to recapture. Everyone on the court from the Twins to James Young to Alex Poythress to Willie Cauley-Stein to Dominique Hawkins played important roles and each of them stepped up to make big plays. After a week of listening to media members suggest that this could be the game that proved Pitino’s system was better than Calipari’s, the reality is that Calipari outcoached Pitino. Rick made no adjustments capable of getting his big men involved (especially when Randle went out) and was unable to take advantage as his guards looked perplexed when Cauley-Stein would switch on the pick and roll (simple scouting Rick…UK did it against Belmont and Boise). Calipari meanwhile allowed his perimeter players to revert back to their high school days, spacing the floor and getting to the basket, and had they made free throws, it could have been a double digit margin game. For a team coming off a national title, #1 in Kenpom.com efficiency and with boatloads of experience, to lose as they did, either the UK team is just better or Calipari got the better of Rick…you can choose which is the case.
Either way, the scene at Rupp after the game was special. As nearly the entire crowd hung on to watch, “My Old Kentucky Home” was sung and fans celebrated in the aisles. It was a reminder of how great games like this can be, even if you are like me, packing back and forth on the carpet. The Cats were joyous on the court and in the locker room and each seemed happy to give their fans this moment. After 18 months of difficulty, it felt like this grind-it-out win was a sign of the tide turning. Who knows what the rest of the season will bring, but Saturday suggests that good times are ahead. And when we look back upon them, and videos for future UK-UL games are created, Alex Poythress’s dagger dunk will be included and we can all remember a victory that was oh so sweet.
I am back to radio tomorrow from 10-noon…and I would suggest to you it is going to be much fun. Until then…