There are wins, and then there are wins. Kentucky’s 89-62 beatdown of South Carolina this afternoon was definitely the latter, a stunning performance especially when you consider all of the crazy things that happened during it.
Tyler Ulis is the story
Coming in, we knew this game would be a challenge. Not only is South Carolina an incredibly physical team, they haven’t lost at home this season and just beat Texas A&M and LSU. The atmosphere seemed ripe for an upset, especially after John Calipari got thrown out of the game two-and-a-half minutes in. While most teams would totally fall apart after an emotional moment like that, this team banded together and kept their composure, thanks in large part to a career performance from Tyler Ulis.
“The story is Coach Cal coached the team through Tyler Ulis,” Kenny Payne said afterwards. With Calipari out, Ulis took over coaching duties on offense, a natural move to anyone who’s watched this team this season.
“I never touched on offense, didn’t have to. Between Cal and Tyler Ulis, they’re on the same page. Tyler Ulis ran the offense. Every now and then I may have interjected something, but at the end of the day, it was his show,” Payne said of Ulis.
With Ulis in control of the offense, Kenny Payne focused on defense, and although I love Cal, that coaching duo might give him a run for his money. With Kentucky’s bigs in foul trouble most of the game, Ulis and Payne orchestrated what may be the Cats’ best performance of the season.
“Coaches gave me the green light to call my own plays,” Ulis said.
Can you blame them? Ulis had a red-letter day, scoring a career-high 27 points and dishing a career-high 12 assists. Oh yeah, he had only one turnover. Ulis is now the first player in Kentucky basketball history to have two games of at least 20 points and 10 assists. Today was his fourth career double-double and his 11th 20-point game of the season.
“It’s time to put Tyler Ulis’ name in the mix for College Player of the Year,” Jay Williams said.
Yes, it is. And no matter how much we love and appreciate him now, it will never be enough.
Ulis is the story of today’s game, but there are some other things to go over, starting with the moment that led to him pulling double duty as coach and player: John Calipari’s ejection.
Calipari got thrown out of the game two-and-a-half minutes in
No one’s quite sure what exactly sparked the confrontation between John Calipari and referee Doug Sirmons. (Or, if they know, they’re not telling.) Initially, Calipari seemed upset with Sirmons for a no-call, but after Sirmons called a technical on him, Cal went beserk, advancing on Sirmons and screaming to the point that Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe had to restrain him. For the second time in two years in Columbia, Calipari was ejected from the game with 17:34 left in the first half.
In moments like this, teams either fall apart or they band together. With Tyler Ulis at the helm, the Cats not only banded together, they took their game to another level. Both Kenny Payne and John Robic said Cal’s ejection lit a fire under the squad.
“I thought it set a fire within our guys,” Kenny Payne said. “I thought they played with ‘You tried to take one of our guys out,’ we’re coming on, we’re going to play with more energy and effort. We’re going to fight more.”
Robic echoed those thoughts, telling Tom Leach, “Cal’s their guy, they play for him.”
A lot of people are saying Cal got thrown out on purpose, but it happened so early that I doubt that. Regardless, seeing that protective, bulldog mentality from the team for their coach is as encouraging as anything. After the game, Calipari tweeted, “I have never been more proud of a team. They are now empowered. They’ve proven that they don’t need me and I love it.”
Considering the team’s he’s coached, that is some high praise.
After dropping a zero, Marcus Lee became a hero
Kentucky wore special edition Nike jerseys today, and for some reason, Marcus Lee’s only had a single zero on it instead of his normal double-zero. Well, like John Robic said after the game, Nike better send Marcus a new version of his normal jersey with a single zero, because after that performance, he’s not allowed to go back. Lee was fantastic, scoring 11 points and grabbing 13 rebounds, his third double-double of the season, and first since the Illinois State game on November 30.
“I’m so proud of him,” Payne said of Lee, who only had two fouls in 36 minutes. In a game in which fouls were a major story, that last stat may be the most important. Lee spoke for everyone when he told reporters, “Not fouling feels awesome.”
Tyler Ulis certainly seemed happy to have Lee back on point, delivering him two beautiful passes on a platter, this one off the backboard:
Ulis to Lee makes us all giddy pic.twitter.com/IvX1C1Lirg
– Tyler Thompson (@MrsTylerKSR) February 13, 2016
I could watch the bench celebrating after that dunk for the rest of the day.
Jamal Murray’s dunk was better
It’s insane that I’m 900 words into this recap and am just now getting to Jamal Murray’s dunk. Normally, it would be the story of the game. Murray posterized poor Justin McKie, adding insult to a very rough day for the Gamecocks. Murray finished with 26 points, yet another impressive performance. He’s on fire lately.
This was a statement game
With their coach in the locker room, Doug Sirmons on the whistle, bigs in foul trouble, and South Carolina ready to go blow to blow, Kentucky could have shrunk into the shadows. Fortunately, Tyler Ulis and the Cats had other plans.
“Kentucky came in here and proved a point and put a couple black eyes on us.” Frank Martin said. “Their resolve and their will was a lot stronger than ours.”
The Cats are now tied with LSU for first place in the SEC. There’s plenty of basketball left to play, but today’s performance has to make you feel good about March.
For now, take a bow, Tyler.