If not for Josh Harrellson, this game might have been lost. That's a strong statement, but there is a defensible argument to be made that Kentucky was ripe for a major upset tonight, and Josh Harrellson was a big reason why that didn't happen. More on that in a couple of paragraphs.
Congratulations to the Penn Quakers for an outstanding game. It was easy for Kentucky to overlook Penn due to their superior size and athleticism. And UK came out with the attitude that showing up in Rupp Arena was all that was needed for this victory. They found out that the Ivy League may not have athletic scholarships, but they do have smart players who take coaching, know what position to be in, and know how to make open shots. Kentucky did none of those things in the first half, and nearly wound up going in at the half by double digits. A late run prevented that, but this game, for a time, was tilting on the edge of becoming a dangerously competitive contest that could have resulted in an upset.
Alas for the Quakers, they simply couldn't sustain the incredible 3-point shooting and fantastic offensive execution and could not pull away, in no small part because they were dominated defensively inside, and on the glass, by Josh Harrellson. Penn was not really all that hot from the outside, they were just getting wide-open, unopposed looks, and these days, college basketball players of all levels of skill can make that shot. Penn made a bunch, and the Quakers had the Rupp Arena faithful quaking in their boots, and quiet enough to hear a pin drop with three minutes to go in the first half.
In the second half, though, Kentucky came out with the kind of energy and intensity that they need to bring to every half. The result was a complete domination of the smaller Quakers, and a lopsided win. But believe you me, a few bounces of the ball could have made this game far more interesting than anyone in the Big Blue Nation would have wanted.
- Josh Harrellson. He is a senior, and is playing like a senior starter on a big-time college basketball program. God knows, I'm as shocked as you are. Game ball.
From here on, I am kind of torn. There are good and bad things to say about all the players, but the first half was an example of most of them not coming to play, and I can honestly say that Harrellson was the only one who absolutely came to play from start to finish. Knight had a good game overall, and made a huge shot late in the first half, but he also played a lot of matador defense in the first half and made several inexplicable
Darius Miller is going to have good stats, and played really well in the second half, but he made mistake after defensive mistake in the first half, and was a shrinking violet on offense. A classic example was a play where all he had to do 10 feet away was go straight up for a jumpshot, but he tried to make a funky pass and turned it over instead.
Doron Lamb was a defensive joke in the first half, but he got it together and had a good game in the second. In fact, he was so good in the second half I can't recall that he ever missed a shot (upon review of the stats, Lamb was 5-6).
DeAndre Liggins was slated to guard Zach Rosen, but Rosen one-upped him and played purely as a distributor, getting his teammates involved and making it tough for Kentucky. Meanwhile, Liggins made several defensive mistakes that resulted in open 3-point shots, which the Quakers made. In the second half, Liggins was back to his typical awesome self.
Terrence Jones just didn't play very well over all, offensively, but he did rebound, pass, and defend pretty well, at least in the second half. For me, he just didn't seem intense at all, and never got going.
Eloy Vargas was Eloy Vargas. Sometimes looking skilled, sometimes looking like a Division II player. He has made small progress, but we keep hoping for the light to turn on.
Kentucky looked great in the second half, particularly defensively. They created many easy shots with their defense and made it a nightmare for Penn to score. To further help matters, Kentucky made the shots they were missing in the first half from the perimeter, and blew the game wide open.
This should be a good tape to watch in terms of showing this young team what the difference between a good half and a second half is, intensity-wise. Had this been a more skilled and athletic team than the Quakers, Kentucky might well have suffered a loss in this game. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised at how this contest went, but most Kentucky fans, including yours truly, hoped for more.
But you have to give this young team credit, they did not panic when presented with a surprising challenge, and they did not lose their composure in the face of adversity. Instead, inspired by their senior center, they kept focused on the task and trusted themselves to get it done in the end, and they did get it done, in style. It may not have been the prettiest victory ever, but it was a pretty second half of basketball.
That will have to be enough for now, I guess.