Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Kentucky 89 - 86 Mississippi (Overtime) (No. 2,154)

Rocky is the best sports movie of all time, and Apollo Creed is the best part of Rocky.

(NOTE:  In discussing Rocky, I am ONLY talking about Rocky -- the first one, the one that won the Academy Award for Best Picture.  In my mind, Rocky is a standalone movie that really has no connection to any of the "sequels."  Rocky is the best sports movie of all time, and is worthy of serious analysis.  The other movies with Rocky in the title are fun to watch at 11:30 at night while you're eating Cheetos.  So I'm only discussing Apollo Creed as he was portrayed in Rocky, not what a character named "Apollo Creed" did in any other movie.  OK, now let's start again.)

Rocky is the best sports movie of all time, and Apollo Creed is the best part of Rocky.

The other main characters in Rocky -- the Noble Fighter, the Shy Girlfriend, the Shady Friend, the Old Manager -- are mostly stereotypes who follow storylines that are quite predictable.  Does anyone really think that Rocky and Adrian aren't going to get together?  To be fair, the actors do a great job in those roles -- but their stories pretty much go as expected.

But Apollo Creed -- he's different.  In the first place, he is the key to the whole story.  The only reason the rest of the plot makes any sense is because Apollo Creed is supposed to be the greatest fighter in the world -- and possibly the greatest . . . of all time.  No one cares about Rocky when he's fighting a bunch of bums in Philadelphia -- Rocky doesn't even take his own career seriously.  By contrast, everyone cares about the chance to fight Apollo Creed.  Creed's the Heavyweight Champion of the World and one of the most famous people on earth.  He's never lost.  He's never been knocked down.  He is the Gold Standard for everyone in Rocky's line of work, which means that the chance to fight Apollo Creed gives you the chance to find out just how good you could truly be.

Of course, we in the audience have never seen Apollo Creed fight.  And for most of the movie, when we do see him, Creed doesn't seem all that interested in fighting.  He's a genius promoter -- it was his idea to fight Rocky in the first place.  He's a great dresser and a nice guy.  He's really, really rich and really, really smart.  And he knows how to make an entrance -- one of my favorite parts of the whole movie is Creed's arrival at the ring, in full Uncle Sam regalia.  (Rocky says, "He looks like a big flag.")  So the audience can't help wondering, But can he fight?

And that's exactly what Sylvester Stallone wants.  Remember, the audience knows how much the fight means to Rocky.  This is Rocky's only chance, and he's giving it everything he's got.  His whole life -- his whole future -- is tied up in this one fight, and we know he's ready.  But what about Creed?  This is the mystery that keeps us watching -- we know that Rocky and Adrian will get together, we pretty much know what Mickey's going to say and how Paulie's going to act.  But what will happen when Rocky puts everything on the line against Apollo Creed?

Now if Rocky were a mediocre movie, Apollo Creed would turn out to be an empty shell -- a blowhard who can't take a punch, or who cheats, or who generally serves as a Draco Malfoy-type to be foiled by Rocky in the last act.  Instead, Apollo Creed takes everything that Rocky can dish out -- and still wins the fight.  (Yes, I know Rocky had the initiative in the last round, but Apollo Creed was the aggressor and he was in control through the first 14 rounds.  He deserved to win.)  Creed never backs down, never quits -- even after his rib is broken and he's coughing up blood.  In the end, he wants to win just as much as Rocky does.  He's not just a businessman, or a promoter, or a snazzy dresser.  He's a fighter -- and a champion.  His greatness shows the audience just how good Rocky could be.

I had a lot of time to think about Rocky last night as I watched Ole Miss play an amazing game of basketball against the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats.  In my mind's eye, I could imagine it all in movie form:

SCENE:  A gym in Oxford, Mississippi.  The players are downcast as COACH ANDY KENNEDY berates them after their loss to Western Kentucky.

COACH KENNEDY:  You guys are bums!  You've always been bums!  You'll always be bums!  I'm supposed to take you to Lexington on January 6 to play the number one team in the country -- do you have any idea what those guys will do to you?

Over a montage of blues music, the camera shows the Ole Miss players working out.  Sometimes they're in the gym, running plays.  But other times we see them jogging through the country in twilight, or jumping over bales of hay, or doing fingertip push-ups in their dorm rooms.

SCENE:  In the same gym as before, we see a ball boy feeding balls to LADARIUS WHITE, who makes shot after shot from the far corner.  COACH KENNEDY walks up to WHITE.

WHITE (to himself after each shot):  Forty-eight,  forty-nine, fifty.
COACH KENNEDY:  White, are you telling me that you've made this shot fifty times today?
WHITE:  No sir. (pause).  I've made it fifty times in a row.
COACH KENNEDY (after a pause):  OK, White.  Let's see you do it from the other side of the court.

SCENE:  We see STEFAN MOODY and some teammates going over plays during Christmas dinner, to the annoyance of their girlfriends.  Meanwhile, the screen in the background shows an ESPN announcer interviewing the Harrison twins, who are smiling broadly and wearing blue Santa Claus hats.

GIRLFRIEND NUMBER 1 (Looking at the TV):  Stefan, don't y'all play Kentucky soon?
MOODY (briefly stopping to glance at the TV):  Is Kentucky really a basketball team?  I thought they were a reality show.

SCENE:  The Ole Miss players, led by JARVIS SUMMERS, are walking into Rupp Arena when they are accosted by A CYNICAL KENTUCKY JOURNALIST, looking quite moth-eaten:

CYNICAL JOURNALIST:  Here come the lambs to the slaughter!  How do you feel about the fact that there are 24,000 people here to watch you lose?
SUMMERS:  As I understand it, sir, Kentucky only gets to play five guys at a time.

This was a great game, so we're going to go through it old-school style, one quarter at a time:

1st Quarter:  Kentucky 23 - 20 Mississippi

The Cats were 22 1/2 point favorites, and they started off as if that number was too low.  The Cats were up 10-0 after only two minutes, and Andy Kennedy had already called his first time out.  With 16:29 left, Aaron Harrison hit his third three-pointer in a row, and the Cats were up 18-5.  The Champ is really just toying with Rocky -- he wants to make sure the fans get their money's worth.  Then this happened:

15:59 left:  Jarvis Summers puts back a missed shot (UK leads 18-7)
15:23 left:  Summers makes an old-fashioned three-point play (UK leads 18-10)
14:55 left:  A UK turnover turns into a dunk for Dwight Coleby (UK leads 18-12)
14:34 left:  Stefan Moody hits a three-pointer (UK leads 18-15)

A 10-0 run in less than two minutes.  The Cats dug in after that, and led 23-17 with about 11 minutes to go.  And then there was a long sequence where UK had several chances to score but didn't, and after that Ole Miss was off to the races.

2d Quarter:  Kentucky 13 - 18 Mississippi (Ole Miss led 38-36 at the half)

With 7:59 left in the half, the Cats -- whose offense had stopped almost completely -- still led 26-24.  And then Stefan Moody came down and hit a shot that I never expect to go in -- a running, contested three-pointer.  (Both Kansas and UCLA shot themselves out of their games against Kentucky trying to make that shot.)  Then less then a minute later, he came back and hit another one.  Suddenly Ole Miss was up 30-26, and soon afterward, a dunk by Aaron Jones put the Rebels up 36-30.  At that point, they were on a 31-12 run against the Number One Team in the Nation.  The Champ is down!  He's down!  That's the first time Creed has ever been knocked down in his career.

At this point, Kentucky seemed to calm down and regain its focus.  The Cats cut the Ole Miss lead to 38-36 at the half, and pulled off a nifty steal to prevent the Rebels from taking the last shot.  Interviewed on his way to the locker room, Coach Calipari expressed concern about UK's intensity, and I was pretty sure that UK would come out ready to play in the second half.

3d Quarter:  Kentucky 21 - 19 Mississippi (Game was tied 57-all with 10 minutes left)

Kentucky opened the second half with Dakari Johnson, Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis, Aaron Harrison, and Willie Cauley-Stein.  It took only five seconds for WCS to wipe out the Ole Miss lead with a dunk, and 25 seconds later an Ole Miss turnover quickly became a three-pointer by Devin Booker.  A left from the champ!  Rocky is staggered.  Ole Miss called time.

UK eventually built a 51-45 lead, and I thought they were finally about to pull away.  But Ole Miss quickly tied the score, and the two teams started trading haymakers back and forth.  They're going toe to toe!  By this point, it was clear that Moody was putting on a show for the ages -- he eventually made five three pointers, and scored 25 points in only 29 minutes.  But Aaron Harrison was on his way to making five three-pointers as well.  And so the game see-sawed back and forth.

4th Quarter:  Kentucky 20 - 20 Mississippi (Game was tied 77-all at the end of regulation)

With 8:05 left in the game, Calipari pulled Ulis and replaced him with Andrew Harrison.  In his 23 minutes against Ole Miss, Ulis had done his usual solid job on offense -- he had 7 assists for the game.  But he was really struggling on defense, as Moody and Summers continued to rack up the points.  Ole Miss led 61-59, and this was no time for platoons.  Instead, the Cats relied heavily on the old heroes from last year:  Aaron Harrison (who played 40 minutes), Willie Cauley-Stein (39 minutes), and Aaron Harrison (32 minutes).

I was transported back to last March, when I had watched the Harrisons play one of the best series of games I have ever seen.  Different people will have different memories -- but whatever happens, I will always think of the Harrisons running the offense late in a big game where Kentucky absolutely has to score.  I know their story -- all the close games they lost in the SEC last year, all the close games they won in the NCAA's, all the pressure that they have faced since arriving on campus.  It was exciting (but nerve-wracking) to see them in another late-game drama.

But would even the Harrisons be enough to save the Cats?  Time after time, Ole Miss held the ball deep into the shot clock, only to make yet another amazing jump shot.  (At one point, LaDarius White made a running shot with a hand literally about six inches from his face.  In the heat of the moment, the officials gave him three points, although the officials finally -- two TV timeouts later -- figured out that White's foot was on the line.  I still can't believe he made that shot.)  They made bank shots, shots from both corners, and lots of free throws.  (For the game, Ole Miss went 9-17 from three-point range and 19-22 from the line).

With only 3:34 left, the Cats had a 75-70 lead, and Aaron Harrison was on the line to add another point.  Rocky is down here in the 14th round!  Creed raises his hands to celebrate.  But Aaron missed.  A minute later, WCS was at the line for two free throws and a chance to give UK a seven point lead.  He missed them both.  I had long since quit listening to Tom Leach (who makes me nervous in close games), but I knew that he and all the other Kentucky fans expected those missed FT's to haunt us.  Rocky is getting up!  He's still ready to fight!  And they did:

2:25 left:  Jumper by Jarvis Summers (UK leads 75-72)
1:55 left:  Missed jumper by Trey Lyles (White rebound)
1:36 left:  Three-pointer by White from deep in the corner (He seemed completely guarded -- you couldn't even see him on TV) (game tied at 75)
1:14 left:  WCS makes one of two FT's (Auggh!  Missed free thows!) (UK leads 76-75)
59 seconds left:  Summers draws a foul from WCS and makes both FT's (Ole Miss leads 77-76)

At this point, I wanted Aaron Harrison to shoot a three-pointer, but he drove inside the arc and pulled up for a jumper that missed.  And now Ole Miss had the ball -- and the lead -- with 37 seconds to go.  Given that the Rebels had literally not missed a free throw in the game, my hopes at this point were not high.

But this particular UK team is mentally tougher than I am.  They pressured Summers as he attempted to bring the ball up -- and suddenly the ball had skittered into Trey Lyles's hand, and then Andrew Harrison was going in for a layup with 25 seconds to go.  He was fouled.  He missed the first free throw (augh!) but made the second.

All tied with 25 seconds left.  Ole Miss ball.

And here, for the only time in the whole game, I thought the Rebels got too cocky.  During the whole game, UK had struggled to defend the quick Rebel guards.  If Ole Miss had attacked, there is a good chance they could have scored -- either by making the shot or getting to the line.  Then the pressure would have been on UK to keep the game alive.  Instead, Ole Miss not only held for the last shot -- they tried another contested three-pointer by Summers.  This effort pressed Rebel luck too far -- the ball banged off the back of the rim, and we were headed to overtime.

Overtime:  Kentucky 12 - 9 Mississippi (UK won 89-86)

I was very happy that UK had survived in regulation, although I never truly expect the Cats to win in overtime (too many bad memories).   So I wasn't surprised when, one minute into overtime with the score tied at 79, WCS was called for a foul on Stefan Moody.  Three free throws coming up.  And the Rebels hadn't missed a free throw the whole game.  (Moody himself was 4-4 from the line).  But Moody had been suffering from cramps throughout the second half, and now he was done.  He literally had to be helped from the floor (Cut me, Mick!  Cut me!), and he didn't return.  After the game, Coach Calipari said that the Cats would have lost if Moody had stayed in the game, and it's hard to disagree.

But Moody was out, and M.J. Rhett (who took his place at the line) missed two of free throws.  Soon afterward, Dakari Johnson scooped up a huge offensive rebound and put the Cats up 81-80.  Now both teams were in a great offensive flow, and the points came quickly:

3:22 left:  LaDarius White makes ANOTHER three-pointer from the corner (Ole Miss up 83-81)
2:56 left:  WCS gets an offensive rebound and scores (83-all)
2:22 left:  Dwight Coleby is fouled and makes two FT's (Ole Miss up 85-83)
2:08 left:  Andrew Harrison makes a HUGE three-pointer (UK up 86-85)
1:40 left:  Summers is fouled but makes only 1 FT (86-86)  (Note:  This was an outrageous call -- Summers actually lost the ball in the lane.  He fell on the ground trying to keep the ball, and Andrew Harrison went in to tie him up -- the possession arrow was in UK's favor.  They never call fouls in that situation, but they did here.  I can only assume that Karma forced Summers to suffer his only missed FT of the night -- he went 10-11 from the line.)
1:29 left:  Aaron Harrison makes two FT's (UK leads 88-86)

And now, with 1:13 left in the game, LaDarius White came down and . . . MISSED!  Willie Cauley-Stein grabbed the rebound (he had 12 rebounds in the game), and the Cats had the ball.  With 40 seconds to go, Andrew Harrison missed a layup, but Cauley-Stein got another rebound, and Andrew Harrison made one of two free throws to give UK an 89-86 lead with 32 seconds to go.

Timeout Ole Miss.

The Rebels got the ball to Summers (23 points for the game), but he missed.  There was a wild scramble for the ball, but it went off of Ole Miss, and UK had the ball.  The Rebels fouled Trey Lyles, and I thought for sure he would put the game away, but he missed both FTs.  Still 89-86.

And now there were only a few seconds left, and the ball was in the hands of Martavious Newby, who is not LaDarius White, Stefan Moody, or Jarvis Summers, and who took a wild, off-balance three-pointer.  It missed, and the Wildcats ran out the last few seconds.

Still undefeated.  14-0 overall.  1-0 in the SEC.  17 conference games to go.

The huge crowd at Rupp had been standing for a long time, and they let out a stupendous, joyous roar.  I joined them from my rec room.  Because, you see, here's the biggest difference between Rocky and Apollo Creed.  Rocky has one big fight -- his one chance at fame and fortune.  Not surprisingly, he goes all out to win.  But every fight is big for Apollo Creed -- he can never take a night off.  All of those Kentucky fans wanted to win that game more than the typical Ole Miss fan has ever wanted to win any basketball game.  At UK, Every game counts.  Years ago, when I started writing about the Wildcats, I decided to keep a running count for their all-time wins, and to include that number in every write-up of a victory.  Because we keep track, and we want to win them all.

And this year, we have a great group of players who apparently want to win just as much as we do.  Before the Louisville game, the Cardinals warmed up in shirts that said "Heart over Hype," and I can understand how people who don't know these Cats could see them as a bunch of pretty boys pumped up by the national press.  But last night they faced a team that played outstanding basketball -- Ole Miss made 48 percent of its 2-point shots, 53 percent of its 3-point shots, and 86 percent of its free throws -- and the Cats still won.  That's not hype.

Anything can happen in this crazy game, and probably will.  But as long as the Cats play as hard as they did down the stretch last night, I will be proud of them however the season ends.  And in the meantime, I have another set of great memories.

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