The Kentucky Wildcats (16-4, 4-2) harder-than-it-should-have-been 66-60 victory over the Georgia Bulldogs (14-6, 3-4) Saturday afternoon in Rupp Arena was two-for-one study in how to build a big lead, and unfortunately, how to nearly blow a big lead. For the second straight game, UK worked hard and smart to build a comfortable margin, only to see the lead evaporate courtesy of missed shots, missed free throws, and a lack of upperclassmen leadership in the closing minutes of the game. And although the 'Cats came out winners in both SEC battles, the UK coaching staff and fans alike have reason to reach for the Rolaids while anticipating what fate lies ahead.
But, before we can earnestly evaluate the 'Cats chances of finishing their upcoming two-game road trip (@ Ole Miss and Florida) with a 6-2 mark, let's take a look at what went wrong over the final minutes of the 'Cats last two games, and what the team members need to accomplish in order to alleviate future letdowns.
In UK's 67-58 win over the Gamecocks, the 'Cats held a 61-45 advantage with 4:16 left in the game. In those final frustrating minutes, UK took and missed four shots, and made 6-8 free throws (one of UK's misses was the front end of a one-and-one). Carolina, over the same period of time, made 3-7 shots from the field (including one three-pointer), and connected on 6-7 free throws. Both teams grabbed four defensive rebounds.
Kentucky's mistakes in the final minutes included -- Josh Harrellson committing a senseless foul on Sam Muldrow at the 3:28 mark, resulting in Muldrow making both free throws (John Calipari was so unhappy with Harrellson that he benched him for the remainder of the game). Second, Doron Lamb fouled the three-point shooter, SC's Eric Smith, with 1:15 remaining and UK up 61-53. Smith, who had made only 2-15 trey tries (13.3%) up to that point in the season, made all three free throws, bringing Carolina within five points, making it a two possession game.
When the 'Cats should have been padding an already comfortable lead, they were instead outscored by SC 13-6 in the final 4:16.
Against the Bulldogs, and after playing one of their best halves of the season the first 20 minutes, UK held a 52-38 lead with 11:25 remaining in the game. In the second half of the second stanza, the 'Cats played surprisingly indifferent, and uninspired basketball, evidenced by this -- UK made only 3-11 shots from the floor (27.3%), after making 19-40 shots from the field (47.5%) the opening 28:35 of the contest. The 'Cats also made only 8-13 free throws (61.5%), and grabbed zero offensive rebounds in eight opportunities.
Georgia, while making only 7-22 shots from the field (31.8%), including two made three-pointers, hit the boards like junkyard dogs after a bloody T-Bone, snagging seven offensive boards, which resulted in seven second chance points. You read that right; seven offensive rebounds on fifteen misses, a 46.7 offensive rebounding percentage. That, sports fans, is unacceptable. For comparisons sake, and to thoroughly drive the point home that the 'Cats were not a focused group at the end of the game -- Over the first 28:35 of the contest, UGA had three offensive rebounds on 19 misses (15.8%)
In a game in which the first half of action was dominated by the boys in blue -- the 'Cats found themselves up 39-24 in spite of their leading scorer, Terrence Jones, playing only seven minutes due to foul trouble -- they simply allowed the more aggressive Bulldogs back in the contest, giving the Dogs hope. And hope is exactly what a team on top does not want to give the team with the boot pressed firmly on their neck. Instead of grinding their collective heel into the carotid artery of the Dogs, UK flinched, and began back-peddling, leaving their killer instinct on the sideline.
Want more, well I have more -- With UK being outscored 22-14 by Georgia (in the last 11:35), and 13-6 by South Carolina (in the last 4:16), the 'Cats, in the combined final 15:51 of the two games, were bested by a count of 35-20.
The On-Going Saga: Searching for Leadership
After the Georgia game, UK coach John Calipari had these thoughts on why the 'Cats are suddenly allowing teams back into the game, as well as who he expects to step-up at crunch time:
"We missed some free throws. Two plays we broke off that we were not trying to do. And that's what happens with a young team. But one of the things I said, this team has to be about Darius (Miller), DeAndre (Liggins) and Josh (Harrellson), our juniors and seniors. It's got to be about them, what they accept, what they affect, and they have to be the guys making plays down the stretch, not freshmen. If our freshmen happen to do it, fine. But we can't count on those guys; they are freshmen. Get me those upper classmen."
" You (the upperclassmen) must be the tough guys. You've got to make the tough plays. You're not missing a rebound, can't be. That's one. Two, you've got to be really strong with the ball so you're not getting balls ripped out of your hands, like not happening, and you're making easy plays. And then all of a sudden, you make that big block, you get that big rebound, you dive on the floor and get the ball and make that charge."
Calipari is obviously looking for heightened production from his three upperclassmen in end-game situations. Here is why -- In the final 4:16 of the SC game, plus, the final 11:35 of the Georgia game, Cal's three would-be, should-be leaders floundered their way to the following numbers: D. Miller -- 0-2 field goals, 2-2 free throws, three defensive rebounds, two turnovers, and two points. D. Liggins -- 0-2 field goals, 2-2 free throws, two defensive rebounds, one turnover, one steal, two points. J. Harrellson -- Three defensive rebounds, 0-1 free throws, zero points.
Combined, the three upperclassmen scored four points, were 0-4 from the field, made 4-5 free throws, and grabbed eight defensive rebounds. Paltry production, indeed.
Darius Miller, when asked if the freshmen mistakes were the reason Georgia reduced UK's lead, responded:
"Honestly, it isn't really on the freshmen, it's all of us; me, DeAndre (Liggins), and Josh (Harrellson) included. We have spurts where we play really well and then there are times where we let down. We have to fix that as a team, not just the freshmen. It also has to do with us playing the whole forty minutes and not in spurts, so it kind of rubs off on the younger guys, so it is something we need to work on."
Spoken like a legitimate leader. Now though, will Miller, in spite of his recent less-than-determined late-game production, execute like the leader his coach is searching for?
Perhaps, and here's why -- A positive sign Miller has decided to take a more active role in the offense are his impressive numbers over the last five games -- Miller is averaging 13.8 points per game, scoring in double-figures in five straight contests. After averaging 6.6 shots per game through UK's first 14 games of the year, Miller, over the last six games -- which perhaps, not coincidently, coincides with the start of SEC play -- is averaging 10.2 shots per game. And Miller isn't just taking more shots, he is doing what leaders do, he's making more shots: In his last five games, the Maysville native has made an outstanding 27-50 overall shots (54.0%), after making 46.2% of his shots through the teams first 15 games. During the same time-frame, Miller has made 7-18 three-point shots (38.9%), but even more promising, he has made 20-32 two-point attempts (62.5%).
Based on these numbers, Miller certainly seems to be elevating his game, becoming a more assertive, consistent Darius Miller, something his coach and fans have been clamoring for since his arrival in Lexington. Whether that mindset segues into Miller becoming the leader the 'Cats are thirsting for remains to be seen, but the foreshadowing of such an event seems to be present.
But, with road games at Ole Miss and league-leading Florida looming large on the horizon, time is waning for Miller to take the leap from shy, unselfish-to-a-fault Mildcat, to take-charge, win-at-all-cost Wildcat.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!