Sunday, February 24, 2013

Kentucky 90 - 83 Missouri (Overtime) (No. 2,109)

A lot of times, especially when things are going well for the Wildcats, you'll hear commentators refer to UK as a "blue blood" program.  You'll see references to how the "lordly" Wildcats are one of the "elite" programs.  I understand the sentiment that drives such comments, and I wouldn't say that the sentiment is totally inaccurate.  But it does miss one vital point.  The UK basketball program is, and always has been, a blue-collar program, filled with mostly poor kids, and driven by the passion, love, and intensity of proud, hard-working people.  There are a few people in Kentucky who get to ride horses and drink mint juleps on their porches, but most Kentuckians are fighting every day to make a better life for themselves and their loved ones -- and they want to see that same fight in their basketball team.

So it's always interesting to watch Kentucky when they are backed into a corner on their home court, like they were tonight.  Consider the background for this game:

1.  Kentucky was 18-8 on the season, and 9-4 in the SEC.

2.  These numbers were not good enough for ESPN, which spent the day telling us that UK should not be invited to the NCAA Tournament.

3.  Kentucky's season ends with three games of brutal difficulty -- at Arkansas, at Georgia, and home to Florida.  They will certainly be underdogs against Arkansas and Florida, and I think they'll have a very difficult time with Georgia.

4.  So if Kentucky wanted a realistic chance of making the NCAA's, they desperately needed to win at home against Missouri tonight.

5.  But Kentucky lost its best player -- Nerlens Noel -- only three games ago, and the remaining Wildcats were struggling mightily in his absence.

6.  In fact, with only 4:55 left in the first half, UK trailed the Tigers 28-15.

In other words, the situation was about as grim as it could possibly be.  After months of practice, struggle, and disappointment, Kentucky's players faced the age-old dilemma:  would they fold, acknowledging that the challenge was just too much for them -- or would they somehow rally for one more attempt to save their season?  A full house at Rupp Arena, the bright lights of ESPN's College GameDay broadcast, and millions of UK fans across the country, waited to see what they would do.

Well, as it turned out, they fought like Wildcats.  It should be noted, however, that they also finally caught a break.  In fact, they caught two.  First, Missouri's high-powered offense can be truly devastating when the Tigers hit their three's, but they were just a little bit off tonight.  (They kept hitting the front rim.)  The Tigers went 5-20 from behind the arc, and that helped keep UK in the game.  Second, Missouri seemed to ease up somewhat with their big lead -- just as the Cats had done so often in their own SEC games.  Mizzou got a little sloppy with the ball, and went almost three minutes without scoring.  By then, UK had run off nine points in a row to make the score 28-24, and the Cats were back in the game.  The half ended on a flurry of points -- each team scored 7 points in the last 2:07 -- and the Tigers led 35-31 at the break.

In the second half, UK got another huge piece of good luck.  Soon after the half began, Archie Goodwin was standing all by himself, with the ball, behind the three-point line.  He was unguarded because he basically can't make three-pointers -- at least he hasn't made them in 2013.  Since the New Year began, Goodwin was 1-23 from behind the arc.  He had not made a three-pointer since January 12.  So when he took the shot, I'm sure Missouri expected to get the rebound and add to its lead.

But the shot went in.

Rupp went nuts.  The fans knew what that shot meant to the team, and to Goodwin.  And just a few seconds later, Goodwin stole the ball, raced to the other end, and dunked it!

Suddenly the Cats led 36-35, and Rupp was a madhouse.  Goodwin, at that moment, may have been the happiest player I've ever seen in a UK uniform.  He had suffered for so long, and now he was finally looking like a big-time player.  He was absolutely thrilled.

Unfortunately for UK, these events also had the effect of jarring Missouri back into reality.  The Tigers awoke from their funk, and started taking UK seriously again.  That meant using their excellent point guard, Phil Pressey, to break down the defense and get to the rim.  But UK, led by a now-inspired Goodwin (he finished with 18 points, and he had no points at the half), matched the Tigers basket for basket.  Suddenly we found ourselves in one of the best SEC games played at Rupp in a long time, with both teams trading haymakers.

UK slowly built a modest lead, which they guarded with great care, like a miser trying to save a dime.  With 5:59 left, the Cats were up 66-59.  But by this point, Missouri had pretty much figured out UK's defense, and they were putting on the same type of late-game rush we've seen so often this year.  UK was playing hard, but this team greatly misses Noel on defense, and Missouri took full advantage of his absence.  The Tigers kept cutting away at UK's lead, and soon the game was tied at 73 with 1:17 left.  UK ball.  The Cats came up court, and tried to get it to Willie Cauley-Stein.  I can still see the ball slipping through his hands, and then a scramble, and then (of course) Phil Pressey coming away with it.  Seconds later, Pressey had made what seemed to be his 80th layup of the game.  (He was actually 12-24 from the field, and finished with 27 points, 10 assists, and 4 steals).  Mizzou led 75-73, and there were only 57 seconds left.

At this point, I should state that I almost never expect this UK team to score in the half-court -- in fact, I was amazed that the Cats had already put up 42 points in the half.  So I wasn't very optimistic.  And I was even more nervous when I saw that Mays was trying yet another pass to Cauley-Stein.  But this time, Cauley-Stein caught the ball and laid it in to tie the score at 75 with 41 seconds left.  (WCS had an odd line:  3-7 from the floor, 1-7 from the line, 7 points, 12 rebounds, and 7 blocks.)

Now at this point, I still thought Missouri should win.  They had scored 16 points in the last 5 1/2 minutes, and seemed to have totally figured out UK's defense.  But instead of running their usual half-court set, they spread the floor and let Pressey go one-on-one.  This didn't work -- as it often doesn't -- and regulation ended with a last-second heave from Mays (who missed a streaking Goodwin who was pleading for the ball).  Overtime.  (By the way, props to Ken Pomeroy, who predicted the game would end 75-73 in UK's favor.  He missed the final score in regulation by only two points.)

A very nervous game now, with the huge crowd roaring and seething on every play.  The fourth overtime game in the SEC today (the first time that had happened since 1979, according to ESPN).  Pressey looking strong and confident in the Missouri huddle.  Calipari shuffling guys in and out on almost every play, constantly talking to everyone, including the officials.  How many times have we all been here, late at night, hoping to will the Cats to yet another victory?  For over 100 years Kentuckians have used basketball to distract them from the miseries of January and February, and tonight you could remember that no place is more magical than a hot gym on a cold night.

The next few minutes were frantic:

Willie Cauley-Stein got the tip, but Harrow soon threw the ball away.
Missouri missed a layup.  Harrow got the rebound, but missed a jumper.
Pressey got another layup to put Missouri on top 77-75.
Mays drew a foul and made two free throws.  77-77.
Missouri missed a contested layup, but Cauley-Stein missed two free throws for UK at the other end.
Pressey made a beautiful jump shot to give the Tigers a 79-77 lead.
Mays missed a jumper, got his own rebound, and scored to tie the game at 79.
Pressey missed, but Goodwin couldn't hold the rebound.  Mizzou called with with 2:01 left.
Willie Cauley-Stein blocked a shot, which went out to Pressey.
Pressey missed a three-pointer, and Cauley-Stein got the rebound.

And then we had the game's two biggest plays:

1.  UK held the ball for 26 seconds, probing at the UM defense.  Suddenly, Harrow hit Goodwin with a beautiful pass, and Goodwin made a streaking reverse layup to put UK up 81-79.  No two players have received more criticism than Harrow and Goodwin, but in this game they combined for 34 huge points.

2.  Missouri, trailing with 1:06 to go, came up court.  Seventeen seconds later, Phil Pressey -- who had been so great in this game -- jumped as if to shoot, changed his mind, tried to pass, and had no one to pass it to.  The ball flew out of his hand, and suddenly it had been picked up by Alex Poythress, and Missouri was grabbing him, desperately trying to stop the layup that would have given UK a two-possession lead.  They never call an intentional foul in those situations, so Poythress had to go to the line.  But Poythress had been even better than Goodwin and Harrow in this game.  He went 8-10 from the field, had 21 points and 7 rebounds, and he nailed the two free throws to put the Cats up 83-79.  (After the game Calipari -- expressing, as usual, the same views as the UK fans -- asked rhetorically why Poythress doesn't play like this all the time.  I hope he figures that out.)

Pressey quickly scored to make it 83-81 with 41 seconds left, but Harrow was fouled on the inbounds play, and his free throws restored UK's four-point lead.  Down the stretch the Cats got four more free throws from Mays, who led all the Cats with 24 very canny points (2-4 from two-point range, 4-8 from three-point range, and 8-9 from the line).  When it was all over, the Cats had their sweetest win of the year and they were back in a tie for second place in the SEC.

After the game, lots of folks sat around waiting for Coach Cal, who was almost giddy with relief.  He complimented the fans, saying it was the best crowd he'd seen at Rupp.  He told us that the players were lucky to be playing at UK, that he was lucky to be coaching there, and that the fans were lucky to be there.  He urged us to fight all negative thoughts, and to enjoy our blessings.  And on a night like this, you could see his point.

1 comment:

  1. Hooray! This was great. My favorite part was the description of the Goodwin sequence and reaction--absolutely right.

    I really love this team. It's so interesting. It's not just a one-game-at-a-time team; it's a team of almost all one-game-at-a-time players. Noel seemed to have gotten to that point where you knew what you were going to get from him every game, and what you were going to get was quite a lot of good things. And you pretty much know what you're going to get from Polson, and it's some good things. And you thought you knew what you were going to get from Mays, but it turns out he had more good things than originally thought. But Harrow? And Goodwin? And Wiltjer? And Poythress? And Cauley-Stein? Each has shown plenty of great things to offer, but good luck figuring out which of those things you're going to get on a given night.

    Honestly, it seems like the UK coaching staff is on a game show where they are presented a scenario at halftime: Here's the score, and here's the team your facing, and here's the team you're coaching again; now you have 10 minutes to decipher how you're going to coach the rest of this game--go! So you get games where the offense is basically quick, penetrating guards and scraps (kind of like Missouri with two Presseys but nowhere near the beef inside), and then you get games where the offense is basically built to run a give-and-go offense with Wiltjer playing the role of Karl Malone, and then there are moments that Poythress is Elvin Hayes, and then last night the key seemed to me to be that Cauley-Stein flashed a little Kenny Walker. But you never know.