Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Mississippi 74 - 87 Kentucky (No. 2,104)

Normally, UK's once-every-two-years trip to Oxford is one of my least favorite games on the schedule.  Traditionally, Ole Miss is the poor man's Alabama -- they usually have a bunch of tough, athletic guys who play hard but who aren't very good at basketball.  However, on their home ground, in front of a rare sell-out crowd, and in that weird dark gym of theirs, they are often tough to beat.  In 2009, UK was  ranked number 24 in the country, and was 5-0 in the SEC when they rolled into Oxford.  At halftime, the Cats were up 39-37 when Coach Gillispie got into a silly argument with the ESPN halftime reporter.  Ole Miss came back to win 85-80, and the Cats went into a tailspin that cost Gillispie his job.  Coach Calipari's only prior trip to Oxford as UK's coach was on February 1, 2011.  The Cats were 4-2 in the SEC after being upset at Georgia and at Alabama, and they needed to beat Ole Miss to stay in contention for the SEC title.  Instead, they were beaten at the buzzer, 71-69, and ended up going 2-6 on the road in SEC play.

So I don't like this fixture very much.

But this year was different.  Going into tonight's game, Ole Miss was 17-2 overall, 6-0 in the SEC, and ranked 16th in the country -- the highest ranked Ole Miss team UK has played since the Cats beat the Rebels in the final of the 2001 SEC Tournament, and the highest ranked Ole Miss team UK had ever faced in Oxford.  I was happy that, for once, Ole Miss faced some pressure of their own going into this game.  I was also happy that Marshall Henderson, Mississippi's shot-hungry guard, was getting so much attention, as I thought it would help our guys maintain their focus.  I was even happy that Ole Miss improved the lighting in their gym, making it easier to tell what was going on. (There have been years when I could barely tell the teams apart.)

This felt like the biggest game the Cats had played all year, and I was anxious to see how they would deal with the big-game atmosphere.  Unfortunately, the referees were not ready for prime time.  From the beginning, they were blowing their whistles as if they got a bonus for each foul called.  It took only a few minutes for Alex Poythress to get his second foul, and then he was gone for most of the first half.  In fact, much of UK's team was in foul trouble -- the Cats were forced to rely on Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood for much of the half (and I thought they did pretty well).  To be fair, however, the officials called lots of fouls on Ole Miss as well.  The result was an awkward, chaotic, stop-and-go sort of game with almost no flow.  I think this hurt Ole Miss -- it was hard for their crowd to get going, and impossible for Henderson to get into any sort of rhythm.  Finally, with about 10 minutes to go in the half -- and both teams either in or close to the double bonus -- the officials seemed to calm down somewhat, and the teams started scoring.  Ole Miss was struggling from the field, but they started dominating the offensive boards.  Meanwhile, UK was having their usual free throw problems -- they went 10-20 in the first half.  But the Rebels could never put together the run they needed to pull away.  At one point they were up 6, and at another they were up 5, but at halftime UK trailed by only one:  38-37.

Now, here's the thing about big-time basketball.  We want these kids to be nice, and to be good sports, and to love the game, and so forth.  But winning hard-fought games on the road requires a sort of relentless toughness that is not natural to many people.  Of course, the greatest players instinctively realize that you have to go all out on every play.  For this team, however, this has been a difficult lesson to learn.  So it was very encouraging to see them open the second half with the type of ruthlessness good teams must have.  Poythress was back, and together he and Wiltjer tore apart the Ole Miss defense.  Wiltjer was on fire -- he made five three-pointers and finished with 26 points and 7 rebounds.  And when Ole Miss tried to pressure Kentucky, Poythress got one layup after another -- he had 15 points and 7 rebounds in only 20 minutes of game time.  The whistle-happy refs were helping Archie Goodwin, who was not only getting to the line but was making his free throws (he went 12-14 from the charity stripe and finished with 24 points, although he missed his only two three-pointers).  Remarkably, UK scored 34 points in the first 9 and one-half minutes of the second half.  With 9:52 remaining, the Cats were up 73-56.

But the referees weren't finished yet.  Somehow, Nerlens Noel had gone the entire first half without being called for a single foul -- and he had wreaked havoc on the Ole Miss offense.  However, in the second half the officials started calling fouls on Noel left and right -- they called four fouls on him in just over 10 minutes, and he had to leave the game at the 9:52 mark.  A few seconds later, Marshall Henderson took another silly shot, which missed -- but with Noel gone, Reginald Buckner of Ole Miss grabbed the rebound and slammed it home.  73-58.

Suddenly, the Rebels' focus had returned.  No longer were they letting UK get easy baskets in transition, or taking foolish shots of their own.  Instead, they kept working the ball inside over and over, and they started to gain on the Cats.  Meanwhile, UK had gone ice cold.  Here is what UK did with the ball after taking a 73-56 lead:

9:22 left (UK up 73-58):  Mays missed a three-pointer
8:21 left (UK up 73-60):  Wiltjer missed a three-pointer
7:30 left (UK up 73-62):  Goodwin missed a jump shot
6:40 left (UK up 73-64):  Harrow missed the front end of a one-and-one
6:13 left (UK up 73-66):  Wiltjer missed a three-pointer (he was wide open, too)
5:41 left (UK up 73-69):  Poythress missed the front end of a one-and-one
4:58 left (UK up 73-69):  Polson missed a layup

With 4:25 left, Ladarius White made a three-pointer to make the score UK 73, Ole Miss 72.  The Rebels were on a 16-0 run, and the crowd was going absolutely bonkers.  You could imagine UK's whole season falling apart after blowing a 17-point lead.  The Cats called time.

After the game, Calipari said that UK's big mistake during the Ole Miss run is that the Cats kept settling for jump shots instead of going hard to the rim.  As you can see above, there is some truth to this -- although the Cats missed some big free throws as well.  Anyway, after the timeout, the Cats did not go inside.  Instead, Ryan Harrow -- who had not made a three-pointer in over four games -- found himself all alone at the top of the three-point arc, as Ole Miss had (wisely, in my opinion) left him alone.  He took a three-pointer.

And nailed it.

Suddenly, the Ole Miss streak had stopped and UK was up 76-72.  But now the Rebels came tearing down the floor and it looked as though Murphy Holloway had an easy dunk.  By this point, however, Noel was back, and Noel went up (despite his four fouls) and blocked Holloway's shot.  Goodwin ended up with the ball and was fouled in transition.  He made both free throws, and the Cats had a 78-72 lead.

Ole Miss kept going inside, trying to draw Noel's fifth foul.  It didn't work.  Here are some excerpts from the play-by-play:

3:34 left (UK up 78-72):  Reginald Buckner missed Slam Dunk, Blocked by Nerlens Noel
2:55 left (UK up 78-72):  Murphy Holloway missed Slam Dunk, Blocked by Nerlens Noel
1:31 left (UK up 82-74):  Jarvis Summers missed Layup, Blocked by Nerlens Noel

I am certain that the Ole Miss fans are convinced that the officials were trying to protect Noel and refused to foul him out.  It certainly seems odd that the same guys who called four fouls on him in 10 minutes didn't call any at the end of the game.  Of course, it seemed odd that they didn't call any fouls on him in the first half, either.  The only thing I can figure is that the officials believed -- correctly, in my opinion -- that Noel was going straight up and blocking the ball cleanly.  His fouls almost all came on plays where he tried to reach in for a steal or where he was battling for a ball on the floor -- on those plays, for some reason, the officials were eager to call touch fouls.  Thus encouraged to focus on blocking shots, Noel finished with one of the oddest lines you will see:  0-1 from the floor, 2-8 from the line, 2 points, 7 rebounds, and 12 blocks -- the most blocks ever by a UK Wildcat in a single game.  It was a spectacular performance.

Marshall Henderson also ended up with an odd line, although I think it's pretty typical for him:  5-19 from the field, 2-11 from three-point range, 9-12 from the line, 21 points and 1 assist.  Some people have been touting him as the SEC Player of the Year, but I didn't see it tonight.  However, his misses don't hurt the Rebels as much as you might think -- they are a formidable rebounding team, and often score on put-backs after Henderson has pulled the defense out of position.  Tonight they finished with a remarkable 26 offensive rebounds, and they took 85 shots to only 56 for Kentucky.  But they went 28-85, while UK went 28-56.  The Cats had the advantage in three-point shooting (8-23 to 5-16) and in free throws (23-37 to 13-20).

So the Cats were able to pull away over the last few minutes.  In fact, they finished the game on a 14-2 run and left the Magnolia State with an 87-74 victory -- their biggest margin of victory in Oxford since 2003 (when the Cats were on a huge roll that resulted in a 16-0 conference record), and the most points UK has scored in Oxford since a 98-66 win on March 3, 1993.

Of course, the 1993 and 2003 Cats turned out to be really good -- the 1993 team went to the Final Four, and the 2003 went into the NCAA tournament as the number one team in the country.  I don't yet know how good this team can be.  For now, I am very happy that they have moved to 5-2 in the SEC (with three road wins).  We'll just keep taking it one game at a time.  Next up:  Texas A & M.


  1. Rah!

    This was a happy night. I thought every UK player last night could feel legitimately that he contributed key moments to the biggest team victory of the year so far, and I thought every UK player had to believe that he needed his teammates at various moments to make up for his mistakes. That's a great win.