A hoarse John Calipari said it best when he addressed the media after UK’s 63-51 knock-down drag-out win over Texas: “We won, and we got outrebounded by 12. And won. What the what? How in the world? But we were making threes, 1 out of 12. What just happened??”
Kentucky’s win tonight may have been the ugliest game I’ve seen in years but in the last five minutes, it may also have been the gutsiest. Let’s break it down before the refs call another foul.
So. Many. Fouls.
Fifty-one in fact. More than one per minute. In turn, the game never really achieved any rhythm and was downright frustrating at the end. Right, Rick Barnes? “Don’t know if I’ve ever coached in a game where size and strength and the physicality was what it was,” Barnes said. “If you ask the referees, I don’t think they’ve probably ever officiated a game like that.” Both teams faced foul trouble throughout, and as a result, the platoons as we know them were pretty much out the window from the start…but only for this game. “Please don’t think I got away from the platoons,” Cal said. “I didn’t. Just Willie played so well, we had some foul trouble.” At one point after the game, Cal even called the platoons the “plateams,” which I don’t even know what means other than Cal’s sticking to the platoons for now.
As both Barnes and Calipari said afterwards, this was a “big boy game.” We knew going in that Texas was pretty much the only team in the country that could match Kentucky’s size down low, and today, it showed. The Longhorns outrebounded the Cats 42-31, but committed 22 turnovers to Kentucky’s 8, on which UK capitalized for 19 points. It didn’t help that Kentucky struggled against UT’s 3-2 zone and couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. Everything was looking pretty grim until…
They messed with the KAT
After letting Texas go on a 7-1 run to take a 20-14 lead, Kentucky finally got a spark in the form of Karl Tows’ tailbone. At the 4:36 mark, Texas’ Jonathan Holmes hit Karl Towns with a flagrant foul, and the BBN held its collective breath as Towns’ butt bounced off the court and he rolled over in pain. Fortunately, Towns got up and shook it off, leading Kentucky on an 6-0 run with two free throws, a jumper, a defensive rebound and a nifty pass to Tyler Ulis for a fastbreak jumper that tied the game at 20. From there, Willie Cauley-Stein finally made that jump hook we’ve all been waiting for to give the Cats the lead. Speaking of Willie…
When there’s a Willie, there’s a way
One of the big questions heading into this game was how Willie Cauley-Stein would respond to Texas’ physical bigs down low. At times over the past three years, Willie has shied away from contact under the basket, but in the second half today, he stood up and embraced the challenge. In front of 31 NBA scouts and a national audience, Willie had 21 points, 12 rebounds, 5 steals, and 3 blocks against legit NBA prospects. AND, he did all of that without getting into foul trouble, a rare feat in Rupp tonight.
“Willie Cauley-Stein was terrific. He really was the difference in the game,” Barnes said. When asked what he thought of Willie, Barnes said what most coaches across the country are thinking after his performance tonight. “What I think about him is I wish he was on my team. That’s what I think about him. He’s terrific,” Barnes said. “He affected the game every way you can affect it.”
“He was ridiculous today,” Cal said, telling reporters Willie was so good that he had to tell Marcus Lee that he was Willie’s backup for the rest of the game he was playing so well: “Just so you know, at halftime he played so well, I called he and Marcus in, and I said, Marcus, you’re his backup today.” Ever the team player, Marcus took it in stride. “I talked to Marcus Lee after,” Cal said. “He said, Coach, I’m good, Willie was so good today, I accept it. I know how good he is.”
A performance like that deserves a handshake like this
These quotes say it all
We recently learned about Willie’s bouts of insecurity. After the game, he told reporters that his performance tonight validated his decision to return to school and work on his game. “You know, that is one of the biggest reasons that I came back is to just develop myself more as a basketball player,” Willie said. “I feel like I am just starting to do that. It’s only December. I still have three months left.”
Alex Poythress said tonight, he saw a new Willie Cauley-Stein. “He actually said tonight, ‘Let me go in the post.’ He’s matured,” Alex said of Willie. “He was everywhere blocking shots, rebounding, getting steals, getting in the passing lanes and playing good defense.”
Tonight, we are all Willie Cauley-Stein men and women.
The Cats stepped up to the dogfight
The White Platoon plus Willie started the second half on a tear, scoring on five of their first six possessions to take a 36-26 lead. Tyler Ulis, Dakari Johnson, and of course, Willie were crucial in Kentucky’s hot 2nd half start. After Texas’ Prince Ibeh scored at the 14:24 mark, UK responded with eight more points, outscoring the Longhorns 18-2 in the first 8:40 of the period to make it 44-28. Clearly, the Cats rose to Calipari’s halftime challenge: “At half, I told them ‘they were the dog, you weren’t. And if you’re not the dog in the second half, you’ll lose. They’re not afraid of you.” While most of UK’s opponents wilt around the 12-minute mark in the second half, Texas fought back, making the game uncomfortably close. In a five-point game with five minutes left, Texas had the momentum, but UK made the plays. When Texas got back within four, Willie clinched the win with a foul shot, an alley-oop dunk and two more free throws in the final two minutes.
Thanks to Andrew, the streak is safe
UK’s notorious 907-game 3-point streak was in major danger tonight. UK didn’t hit a three until 2:47 left in the game, and it was Andrew Harrison who saved the day. “Andrew showed the courage that I know he has, which is why I put him in at the end, and I told him, you’re going to make the play, you’re the veteran, make a play,” Cal said afterwards. “He made that three in the corner that was huge that gave us some breathing room.”
Phew. Thank you, Andrew.
It was a dogfight, but at the end of the night, the Cats were left standing
Cal wanted a test, and he got one. The offense stunk it up again, but the defense pulled us through again. And it’s only December. As Alex Poythress said, this game will pay off come March. “We showed great poise out there and down the stretch. We’re going to need that when it’s tournament time. Every game is going to be close in the tournament. There’s not going to be any blowouts. We need to show that we can win a close game.”
It’s going to get better, too. “But the greatest thing is it’s December whatever it is, and we’ve got â€‘â€‘ our team is not nearly what it can be. We’re just not,” Cal said afterwards.
8 down, 32 to go.