Thursday, March 27, 2014

Wichita St. 76 - 78 Kentucky (NCAA Tournament) (St. Louis) (No. 2,137)

Now, isn't everyone happy to see UK back in the NCAA's?  Remember how dull the tournament was last year?  Wasn't it fun to see the Cats again playing one of their legendary barn-burners, like they have so many times in the past?  Wasn't it great to see their fans cheering in huge numbers, just like the old days?  Didn't you miss us?


You wanted the scrappy burghers from Wichita to show us the "right way" to play basketball?

Oh, well. That's not exactly what happened.  Here were my thoughts on the game, presented in roughly chronological order.

First Quarter:  Kentucky 19, Wichita St. 18

Ken Pomeroy gave UK a 34 percent chance to win this game, which I thought was a pretty decent chance for a 1 v. 8 game.  I haven't seen much of Wichita State this year, so I really had no idea what to expect.  By the first TV timeout, I was feeling pretty good.  Wichita State led 7-6, but they really didn't look as though they were going to blow us off the court.   The Cats looked sharp on offense, and they were playing sound defense.  With 10:48 to go, Aaron Harrison hit a three-pointer to put us up 19-15, and I thought we were in great shape.

But Wichita State hit a three of their own to make the score 19-18, and Aaron Harrison missed a layup at the other end, and suddenly we were looking at a very different game.

Second Quarter:  Wichita St. 19, Kentucky 12 (Wichita St. led 37-31 at halftime)

All season, Kentucky has struggled with prosperity, and now the Shockers jumped all over them.  I had the feeling that Wichita State had been feeling out the Cats, and now they were ready to show us what they could do.  Their defense had suddenly become much more difficult to penetrate, and they were now looking for chances to spring their devastating fast break.  They were also getting turnovers.  A whole series of dunks and layups put them up 32-23 with 4:37 left before halftime, and UK was on the ropes.  At this point, a few things were obvious to me:

1.  UK couldn't hope to beat Wichita in a fast-paced game.  The Shockers were too quick and too good at passing the ball.

2.  UK had to control the boards, in order to prevent the Shockers from getting any runouts.

3.  Wichita was very well-coached and focused.  They reminded me very much of the Indiana team that gave us so much trouble back in 2012.

But to their credit, the Cats did not give up.  They hung around until the end of the half, and James Young hit a three-pointer at the end of the half to cut the Shockers' lead to six.

At halftime, I was pretty certain that UK was going to lose.  But I hadn't given up.  The Cats were obviously playing hard, and I didn't have that sort of helpless feeling that I sometimes had when UK played Florida.  Meanwhile, CBS showed the Wichita State coach warning his guys that they had to watch out for UK in the second half.

Third Quarter:  Kentucky 24, Wichita St. 17 (UK led 55-54 with 10 minutes to go)

The second half opened with Cleanthony Early hitting a three pointer to put Wichita State up 40-31, and I think at that point the Shockers eased up just a bit.  They had pretty much controlled the game for the last 10 minutes of the first half, they were up by nine points, and I think they had seen the best UK had to offer.  But suddenly the Cats jumped all over them.  Julius Randle put back a missed shot with a thunderous dunk, Aaron Harrison hit a three-pointer, and then Randle had had old-fashioned three-point lead.  Suddenly the Shockers led by only 40-39.  But that was only the beginning.

I read afterward that Wichita State's coach doesn't like to call timeouts, and that must be true because he didn't call one even as Kentucky continued to attack.  After Wichita State had built a 46-43 lead, the Cats ran off seven points in a row (jumper by Dakari Johnson, three-pointer by Aaron Harrison, and a big dunk by Willie Cauley-Stein) to take a 50-46 lead with 13:31 left.  Two minutes later, the Cats still led 53-49.

Now I was feeling confident.  The Cats had taken what I thought was Wichita State's best shot, they had gone to a new level, and they now had a two-possession lead.  Also, they were playing really hard and smart.  The only way we can lose now, I thought, is if Wichita State shows us something we haven't already seen.

And, of course, that's exactly what they did.

Fourth Quarter:  Kentucky 23, Wichita St. 22 (UK wins 78-76)

With 10 minutes to go, and the Cats still ahead by one,  I was aware that Cleanthony Early was Wichita State's best player.  Soon afterward, I was aware that he was having one of the best games anyone has ever had against UK in the tournament.  Look at these examples:

9:55 left:  A missed layup by Randle quickly turns into a layup for Early.  Wichita leads 56-55
8:57 left:  A missed layup by James Young quickly turns into a layup for Early.  58-55

With 7:56 left, Early missed a layup that could have put Wichita up five, and the Cats got two free throws from Andrew Harrison to make the score 58-57.  But then this happened:

7:27 left:  Early makes another layup.  Wichita leads 60-57
6:54 left:  Aaron Harrison banks in a three-pointer to tie the score at 60
6:27 left:  Ron Baker hits a three-pointer to put Wichita up 63-60
6:06 left:  Andrew Harrison gets to the rim and scores to make it 63-62
5:50 left:  Early hits a three pointer to make the score 66-62
4:52 left:  Aaron Harrison makes two free throws to make it 66-64
4:36 left:  Early hits ANOTHER three-pointer to give Wichita a 69-64 lead.

In just over five minutes, Early scored 12 points and led the Shockers on a 15-9 run that gave them a five-point lead with just over four minutes left.  I thought it was ironic that the one-and-done Wildcats had played so hard and so smart -- only to be thwarted by a player who was dominating the game through sheer talent.

Now it's really hard to come from five points down in less than five minutes against one of the best teams in the country.  In fact, at this point in the proceedings, Ken Pomeroy gave Wichita State an 85 percent chance of victory.  But the Wildcats, like Han Solo, are not interested in the odds.  And besides, the Shockers' defense had been stretched to the point where UK was now beating Wichita to the rim time after time, getting either layups or free throws.  The Cats were also dominating the boards -- something that almost no one had been able to do to Wichita State all year.  (For the game, UK out-rebounded Wichita State 32-23.)

Down 69-64, these factors came into play.  Aaron Harrison drove and was fouled.  He made one free throw and missed the second, but UK got the rebound.  Andrew Harrison then drew a foul, and his free throws made the score 69-67 with only 3:54 left.

And now, finally, Wichita State made a mistake on offense.  The Shockers tried to feed the ball to Baker down low, and it was stolen by Cauley-Stein.  Andrew Harrison missed a three-pointer, but Randle got the rebound and was fouled.  He made one of two free throws, and the score was 69-68.

At the other end, Early had the ball down low, but he finally missed.  Young grabbed the rebound and scooted in for a layup to give UK a 70-69 lead.

By now, the huge crowd realized that it was seeing one of the great games in tournament history, and it sounded like the two teams were playing in a cauldron of noise.  Early (of course) nailed a jumper to put Wichita State up 71-70, but Young responded with a three-pointer to put UK up 73-71.

Wichita State came back, and for once they couldn't get the ball to Early or Baker.  A three pointer by Tekele Cotton missed, and UK had the ball and the lead.  The Cats held it for a long time, and then Andrew Harrison was fouled with only 42 seconds left.  His free throws put UK up 75-71.

At this point, one more miss by Wichita State probably would have given us the game, and as soon as Baker shot his three-pointer at the other end, I could tell it was off-line.  But it BANKED IN, and UK led only 75-74.  So it would come down to free throws.

22 seconds left:  Randle makes two free throws to put UK up 77-74.
9 seconds left:  Baker misses a three-pointer, but Early got the rebound and was fouled.  He (of course) made both free throws.  UK led 77-76.
7 seconds left:  Andrew Harrison makes one of two free throws, and the Cats lead 78-76.

With 3.2 seconds to go, Wichita State -- the team that doesn't like to call time -- called time.  I was pretty much resigned to overtime, because I knew it would be very difficult to stop a driving Early without fouling him, and of UK couldn't foul.  But I was afraid Wichita State would hit a three-pointer for the win.  I hate the three-pointer when you only need a two to tie, but I've seen it work before.

Sure enough, the Shockers went for the three-pointer and the win.  UK had guarded Early and Baker, so the shot was taken by Fred Van Vleet, who made 41.1 percent of his three-pointers this year.  Fortunately, I didn't know this, and I was just happy someone other than Early and Baker had taken the shot.  And then I was much, much happier, because the shot missed, and UK had won an amazing, amazing game.  (For the game, Van Vleet went 0-4 from 3-point range.  Early and Baker combined to make 8 of 12).

All year, we've bemoaned UK's hard luck in close games.  But this time, when it really mattered, the Cats had pulled out the all-important close win.  Throughout the game, each team kept pushing the other to higher and higher levels.  When it was all over, both teams' fans seem to feel that their team had played its best -- and it turned out that our best was a little bit better than theirs.  Wichita State had an offensive efficiency score of 1.23 points per possession -- well above their season average -- but the Cats beat them anyway.

And this shows why UK was such an unfair draw for Wichita State.  In the tournament, what's important is not how well you normally play, but how well you CAN play.  UK has not always played its best, but when the Cats are on, they can beat anybody.  Wichita State, with its record of 35-0, shouldn't have had to play its second-round game against a team good enough to beat them when the Shockers played so well.  They deserved better.

As for the Cats, I have rarely been more proud of any UK team.  I admit that I gave up on these guys a few weeks ago -- not because I doubted their effort, but because I just hadn't seen the extraordinary talent we had been promised.  But at least for this game, everything came together, and they played a game for the ages.

In fact, the game was played at such a level that I kept thinking in terms of high drama.  I remembered Shakespare's masterpiece Henry IV Part One, which tells the story of Prince Hal, the heir to the English throne, who is in trouble with his father for his alleged lack of discipline.  Finally the old king warns Hal that he is wasting his life, and that he should be more like the noble and hard-working Hotspur.  But Hal promises that he will win the day when the showdown with Hotspur comes:

For every honor sitting on his helm
Would they were multitudes, and on my head
My shames redoubled!  for the time will come,
That I shall make this northern youth exchange
His glorious deeds for my indignities.

That's pretty much what happened here.  All year, everyone (including me) has taken their shots at UK's freshmen.  All year, Wichita State has been praised for its hard work, its intelligence, its experience.  By the end of the season, Wichita State had the acclaim (and the number-one seed) that UK had expected.  But like Prince Hal, the young Wildcats forced Wichita State to change places.  Now UK is going on to the next round, and Wichita State's season is over.

Amazingly, UK's next game could be even more dramatic than this one, as the Cats next play the University of Louisville.  It will be their fifth meeting in the last three seasons, and the second of those meetings to take place in the NCAA Tournament.  I don't know whether the young Cats can pull off another upset, but I do know that I will be proud to support them.

1 comment:

  1. There are unfortunately few games, tournaments, etc. in sports (that I watch, anyway) that approach the quality of the UK-Wichita State game. Ones that are touched in this way more than validate all of the hours of rooting and watching we spend in the long interims between them. Literally every person I've talked to who watched this game and every person I've heard who participated seems to feel blessed for the experience. So, hooray for that.

    And hooray for this report, which was also great and dead-on.