Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Kentucky 110 - 75 Auburn (No. 2,167)

Many, many years ago, when your correspondent was about 11 years old, I asked my father about Rupp's Runts -- the 1966 team that started 23-0 and played Texas Western for the National Championship.  He told me that they were beautiful to watch -- "the ball never hit the floor."

And for years thereafter, I had the image in my head of how basketball should be played -- perfect passes, quick attacks, the ball zipping around from player to player as if on an invisible wire.

Someday, children growing up in Kentucky will ask their parents about that 2015 team -- the one that started 27-0 -- the best start for any Kentucky team in history.  And their parents will talk about what a beautiful and glorious team they were to watch.  When the parents make these comments, this will probably be the game they have in mind.  Because this was fun from start to finish.

I thought Kentucky played very well in the second half against Tennessee, and the Cats started off even better against Auburn.  Auburn has a gutsy team -- but it's short, and the Tigers struggled to get much going on the inside.  Meanwhile, the Cats were relentless in attacking at both ends.  After eight minutes, UK was up 23-2, and the big crowd at Rupp was celebrating.  This was transcendent, beautiful basketball of a type that even Kentucky rarely displays in SEC play.

At this point, Bruce Pearl realized that it didn't make much sense to try slowing things down -- his team wasn't well-suited to challenge UK in the half court.  So Auburn started racing up and down the floor trying to beat UK's defense and taking any available three-pointers.  Personally, I think this is a pretty good strategy for dealing with Kentucky, and besides, Auburn made 11(!) three-point shots (out of 19).  On the other hand, UK runs a pretty nice fast break itself, and the Cats seemed to enjoy the chance to finally show some of their more spectacular skills.

In the end, almost everyone for UK looked great.  Karl-Anthony Towns went 8-9 from the field, and put up 19 points and 10 rebounds in only 21 minutes.  Willie Cauley-Stein went 4-4 from the field, and continued his display of remarkable dunks.  Aaron Harrison went 7-12 from the field (18 points).  Dakari Johnson went 6-7 (13 points).  Altogether, UK put up some incredible numbers:

38-51 from 2-point range (74.5 percent)
6-17 from 3-point range (35.3 percent)
44 rebounds (to only 22 for Auburn)

And that's how you score 110 points in only 40 minutes -- the most points scored by UK in SEC play since the Cats beat Vandy 120-81 on February 7, 1996.

27-0.  14-0 in SEC play.  4 games left.

Of course, now people will wonder why UK can't do this sort of thing all the time.  But it's pretty rare for UK to get into a game with such a rapid pace.  (The Cats hadn't been in a game with this many possessions since a 2010 matchup with Arkansas.)  In fact, this is a good chance to emphasize how pace of play effects basketball.  Remember when UK beat Alabama 70-48 down at Tuscaloosa?  In that game, the Cats scored 1.3 points per possession, and allowed 0.89 points per possession.  Those results were very similar to UK's performance against Auburn, where the Cats scored 1.36 points per possession, and allowed 0.93 points per possession.  But because of Alabama's snail-like pace of play, that game featured only 54 possessions, while there were 81 possessions in the Auburn game.  So UK's offense didn't struggle against Alabama, and UK's defense was pretty solid against Auburn.

I know from years of experience that life doesn't consist of 110-75 home victories.  But this team has worked extremely hard all year, and they really deserved this game.  As did the crowd at Rupp.  It's been a fun year at Rupp so far, with the Cats playing one great game after another -- and throwing in an overtime win against Ole Miss for variety.  And now it's almost over.

College basketball season has a funny rhythm.  It starts in mid-November, when the leaves are still falling.  And then you go through Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and New Year's Day, and you still haven't started conference play.  And then you play game after game in your conference, against teams you've seen over and over for years, and the season feels endless.  But then one day in February, when it feels like spring will never come, you look at the calendar (as I did Saturday night), and you realize that after the Auburn game, this wonderful, glorious team -- which Kentucky fans will remember for decades to come -- will make only two more appearances at Rupp Arena.  One of those will be against a red-hot Arkansas team, and the other will be Senior Day against Florida.  Those will be different types of games, with a different feel in the building.  So I was very glad that this fan base and this team got to have a fun game, where the players could be our heroes, and we could remember what we wanted the game to look like when we were kids.

Speaking of heroes, they retired Tony Delk's number at halftime of this game.  I've written before -- many times, really -- about how much I like good outside shooters.  Tony Delk played for UK for four years, from 1993 to 1996, and he took 712 three-pointers (I think I saw almost all of them).  He made 283, for a career three-point percentage of 39.8 percent.  His senior year -- when UK won it all -- he went 93-210 (44.3 percent).  For me, his three-point shooting was the rock of that team -- the one thing we could count on no matter what.  In the final against Syracuse, with so much pressure on the Cats, most of the team struggled with Syracuse's zone defense.  (The same thing happened to Kansas in 2003, and it cost KU a National Championship).  But Delk made seven three-pointers in that game -- he went 7-12 from behind the line -- and with the Cats up 55-46 with just over 11 minutes to go, he made one of my favorite shots ever:  an impossible, deep-in-the-corner three-pointer, while being fouled.  (You can see it at the 54:30 mark of this video.)  The ensuing free throw put UK up 59-46, and they needed all those points to hold off Syracuse down the stretch.  Delk was the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, and he deserved it.  I was very happy to see him again.


  1. and when you recall such special memories later in life, you will be glad that you took the time to enjoy that moment in your life. such times are forever priceless. tony delk is truly kentucky blue and so are these "cats".