Wednesday, February 9, 2022

S. Carolina 76 - 86 Kentucky (No. 2,347)

 Going to South Carolina is one of my least favorite fixtures on UK's schedule.  And with good reason.  That's where John Wall suffered his first loss as a UK player.  It's where Billy Gillespie's team was destroyed in 2009, thus sending him on the road to being fired.  Going into last night's game, UK was 4-5 at the Colonial Life Arena since it opened before the 2009 season.

And I don't like playing Frank Martin's teams at all.  They play a violent, awkward style that always strikes me as dangerous.  In 2017, the Cats were on a massive roll, headed for an easy win over South Carolina at Rupp, when De'Aaron Fox was injured in the first half.  UK still beat South Carolina, but lost three of their next four.  Those three losses cost UK a number one seed, and forced the Cats to play UNC in the Elite Eight, instead of meeting them in the Final Four.

Also I was traveling yesterday, and I don't think UK plays well when I travel.  I was visiting my parents when Marquette knocked us out of the tournament in 1994.  I was visiting them again when South Carolina beat Pitino's last team at Rupp Arena.  I was on a business trip in 1993 when Tennessee made a four-point play at the end to beat Kentucky 78-77.  I was in a hotel in 2011, listening on my phone, when Arkansas upset Kentucky 77-76 in overtime.

On March 22, 2001, I was on a plane flying back from Houston when UK's game tipped off against Southern Cal in the Sweet 16.  That was a really talented team -- Tayshaun Prince, Keith Bogans, Gerald Fitch, and others -- that came together at the end of the year.  The Cats had been playing their best basketball of the year, and a win over USC would set up an Elite Eight matchup with Duke in Philadelphia.  I thought we were the only team that could stop Duke that year, and I thought we had a decent chance against them.  The timing of the flight was such that I would land at National Airport toward the end of the first half, and I would probably be home in time to watch the last ten minutes of the game.  All through the flight I tried to keep a good attitude, and I thought I had succeeded.  When I got off the plane and started walking through the terminal, I was looking for a television that would show the score.  Here's what I saw:

USC 43  Ky 24   Half

I couldn't believe it.  I raced to my car, and picked up WCKY out of Cincinnati, where the Cats were staging a desperate comeback.  Jason Parker, UK's center, was scoring over and over (he finished with 22 points for the game), and the Cats were playing a wild scramble defense in an effort to catch USC.  They scored FIFTY-TWO points in the second half, which is almost impossible in a Sweet 16 game, but still lost 80-76.  To this day, I have no idea what happened in that first half.  That may be the only game Tubby Smith ever coached at UK where the Cats trailed by 19 or more points at the half.  But I was on a plane, so I didn't see it.

Jason Parker never played another game for Kentucky.  (I don't know why, or what happened to him.)  Duke crushed Southern Cal 79-69 in the Elite Eight, and rolled to the National Championship (largely because the referees carried them past Maryland in the Final Four).  And I never really trusted Tubby Smith again.

So when I got off the plane last night, and UK led 43-41 early in the second half, and I read that Jacob Toppin was out for the game with an ankle injury, I was surprised that the news wasn't even worse.  Yes, it's the third time we've lost a player to injury in only six SEC road games, and yes I wish college basketball wasn't so violent.  But at least we still had our starters.  And we weren't behind by 19 points.

So I took a cab to the office, and turned on the TV, and saw that UK had pulled ahead 64-54, and watched them match the frantic Gamecocks basket for basket for an 86-76 victory.  I was really pleased.  This was a huge, huge win, and shows once again what a tough and canny team this has become.  On Saturday night in Alabama, they couldn't make any shots, so they turned up the defense and beat the Tide 66-55.  Last night in Columbia, they needed to keep scoring, so they put up 47 points in the second half and won by 10.  I really underestimated these guys at the beginning of the year -- especially TyTy Washington, who has become one of my favorite Wildcats ever.

They still have a lot of tough games left, and college basketball seasons usually end in heartbreak.  But I missed this all so, so much since March 2020 -- and I appreciate it all more than I ever have before.  One of the few advantages of getting into your 50's is that you don't take as many things for granted.  So thank you very much to Coach Cal and the Cats -- up to Number 2 on Ken Pom now.  And let's see what happens next.

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