Kentucky's 71-62 victory over the Louisville Cardinals on Saturday revealed much more about John Calipari's team than most could have imagined. With emotions running high, spurred on by UK freshman DeMarcus Cousins' pre-game shoot-around extracurricular conversations with the rival Cards, the game began in a (fighting) fashion no one wants to witness. But, after both teams decided to play ball, instead of engaging in Ali v. Frazier IV, both sets of fan bases were alternately treated to great play, poor play, and play best described as spectacular.
Simply put, the 'Cats Kitty corps displayed what can happen when youth is mixed with a red-hot rivalry -- Raw emotion, and questionable judgment -- But in the end, the 'Cats' talent, coupled with a display of maturity beyond their meager years, propelled UK's freshmen to a recovery from their emotional outbursts, lifting the 'Cats over an undervalued, and superbly coached Cardinal squad.
In a game that featured five technicals, 68 missed shots, 24 missed three-pointers, 37 turnovers, 18 steals, 10 blocks, 51 fouls, and a record-setting 24,479 rabid Rupp revelers, the UK freshmen, with an assist from the upperclassmen, led UK's emergence from the early fog of emotion, to the road to victory. And leading the recovery process was ...
The sad, and overlooked aspect of the Cousins/Jared Swopshire early-game encounter is the fact that Cousins showed great hustle in an effort to gain a loose ball. At 6'11," Cousins hit the floor with a quickness not often seen in players his size, once again dispelling the knock (coming out of high school) on the big man that he takes plays off, he doesn't give all-out effort, all the time.
Although it was obvious, to me at least, that Cousins showed bad judgment with his elbow to the side of Swopshire's head, he quickly regained his composure and dominated the paint area on both sides of the floor. In only 26 minutes of action, Cousins scored 18 points, grabbed 18 rebounds (four offensive), dished out three assists (two to cutters Wall and Bledsoe for layups, one to Patrick Patterson for a dunk), and recorded two blocks. In the first half alone, UK's man-child snagged 12 boards, while his paint counterpart, Patterson, was scoring 12 points. Quite an effective duo, indeed.
But, most impressive to me was the speed in which Cousins let go of the pre and early-game verbal exchanges with his foes, and began to concentrate on making the Cards pay for, well, being Cards. That shows a serious step forward for the easily riled Cousins. Afterall, if I'm coaching against Cousins, I would instruct my team to get into his head ... bump him, talk a bit of smack to him. Players easily taken off-task are many times easily defeated, but Cousins did not allow the emotion of the moment to dominate his thoughts. He channeled that emotion into punishing his challengers. That's growth, and a very large reason the 'Cats came out victorious.
The next 'Cat in line for some atta boys is ...
Seven seconds into the game, and Bledsoe goes nuclear. Apparently unhappy with a conversation he was engaged in with U of L's Samardo Samuels and/or Reginald Delk, Bledsoe clearly lost his cool, and gave "the business" to his Cardinal counter-point purveyor. Once again, a carryover from the pre-game activities, Bledsoe displayed that which typifies many young college athletes -- An inability to control his emotions.
But to his great credit, Bledsoe, after being sat for several minutes (he played only 11 first half minutes) by John Calipari, recovered from his unpleasant opening salvos to play one of the best defensive games (primarily on U of L senior guard Edgar Sosa) someone not named Ramon Harris has played, while wearing "Kentucky" across their chest. And just as key to a UK victory, Bledsoe made his free throws when they mattered the most; In the final minutes: With Kentucky up 58-48, and 3:44 remaining in the contest, Bledsoe calmly sank two free throws to put the 'Cats up 12. Two-minutes later, with 1:13 left in the game, and UK up 62-55, Bledsoe once again connected on his two charity shots. And finally, putting the game on ice, Bledsoe swiped the ball from U of L's Samuels with :42 seconds remaining, and followed-up his great defense by sinking two more free throws at the :30 second mark, putting the Wildcats up by an insurmountable 11 points.
Six of six from the free throw line, and a steal. All in the final 3:44 of the titanic tilt. Despite his youth, inexperience, and inability to let opponents' words roll off his 6'1" frame, Eric Bledsoe knows what it takes to win basketball games -- Defense, and making big shots, whether they be free throws, or three-pointers. The under-heralded freshman from Alabama won't remain so if he continues to play with the passion, determination, and skill often reserved for much older players.
And speaking of passion,determination, and skill, UK's other man-child with game comes to mind, and his name is ...
While UK's superstar freshman point guard didn't partake in the "chippy" chattering taking place on both sides of the aisle early in the contest, Wall was greatly effected by the defense Rick Pitino threw at him. From the beginning of the game, it was apparent that Pitino's method of minimizing Wall's impact on the game was to release his guards on the Cardinal shot, thus leaving Wall with, at best, a two-on-two, or two-on-three fast break. And by the time help arrived in the form of his teammates, the secondary break was quashed because of the Cardinal's ability to match-up quickly with their defensive responsibility. In the first half, Pitino's defensive game-plan, in regards to UK's fast-break ability, resulted in multiple turnovers for Wall (four to be exact), and poor, forced shots (1-5 from the field in the opening frame) taken early in the shot clock
Caught trying to do too much, Wall played like a freshman in the first half. Instead of showing his frustration through his words, though, he dribbled through traffic, force-fed passes, and took the previously mentioned bad shots. But, showing an ability to adjust, Wall was Wall when it mattered most: With U of L taking their only lead of the game, 42-41 with 9:51 remaining, Wall proceeded to score six straight points, putting the 'Cats in a lead they would never relinquish -- The first two of his six points came on a nice drive to the basket, resulting in a layup at the 9:32 mark, and then, in the money-shot of the game, Wall took on 6'10" Terrence Jennings and drilled a 15-footer, putting the 'Cats up three points. Feeling his oats, Wall then drew a foul on a drive, and sank his two free throws. Immediately following, Perry Stevenson's masterfully executed reverse layup was made possible by Wall's penetration of the Cards' outstanding two-three zone. Cardinal surge trumped by wonder-Wall.
Overcoming a poor first half, and fighting cramps, Wall recovered to make four of five second half shots (for 14 points), dish out two assists, and most importantly, commit only one turnover in the face of the Cardinal pressure. Although disappointed in his 7 of 12 free throw shooting (58.3%), Wall again displayed a will-to-win, and the talent to take-over, when the opponent closes the scoring gap.
The Best of the Rest
Daniel Orton -- Playing only eight minutes, and scoring zero points, Orton never-the-less set the 'Cats' defensive tone early by swatting a Cardinal shot with a purpose ... the purpose ... to let the Cardinals know anything other than a three-point shot was going to be heavily and enthusiastically challenged. Orton added another block and a steal in his eight minutes. Likewise, only playing eight minutes was DeAndre Liggins, but he made those minutes count, as he displayed a deft feel with his touch pass to Patrick Patterson for a dunk late in the first half.
Ramon Harris -- He committed three turnovers in his 23 minutes, but Harris did a masterful job on Edgar Sosa (3-11 from the field and six turnovers) for most of the game.
Patrick Patterson -- Regardless of his missed game-clinching dunk, Patterson as usual, played his steady-Eddie contest. His staunch defense, and 7-10 shooting, ensured UK won the point battle in the paint, 40-24.
The Final Word
A wise coach once told me that allowing my emotions to overtake my focus was the height of selfishness. Responding to taunts, or being the taunter, might make me feel better, but it hurts the team. It's a lesson most times hard-earned, but Kentucky, due to their incredible talent, and ability of re-focus on the task at hand, learned through victory that all that matters is who can look at the scoreboard at the end of the game, with a smile on their face.
Was it pretty? No. Was it the best UK can play? No. But, in a rivalry game filled with such emotion and bad blood, Kentucky's fabulous freshmen fought through their self-defeating impulses to out-execute an older, more experienced, expertly coached squad of talented players. That, my friends, is all we can ask.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!