That's what a game-winner looks like.
I filled out two brackets. In neither bracket did I have Kentucky advancing past the Sweet 16. I filled out a "second chance" bracket, re-picking from the Sweet 16 on, and again, I did not have Kentucky advancing past the third round (I know, the Sweet 16 is now "officially" considered the 4th round ... yeah, whatever). I participated in two Podcasts and didn't pick the 'Cats to beat Ohio State in either one. On "Wildcat Wednesdays" on WBGN, I picked Ohio State to best the 'Cats. I told my wife to not expect UK to win (by the way, she hasn't washed her "game day" shirt since the start of the SEC tourney). Anybody who would listen (which is becoming a shrinking audience), I told to prepare for the worst.
The way I saw it, the Buckeyes were bringing to the hard-court just a bit more than UK could muster. Too much Jared Sullinger, too many great, and I do mean great, outside shooters. Too many players capable of giving UK fits both from the perimeter and the paint. The way I saw it, if (underrated) Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli could post 22-points against the 'Cats with Josh Harrellson guarding him one-one-on, well, how many points would everybody's All-American Sullinger put up on Kentucky under similar circumstances?
Plus, I tend to get shaky and flaky in the confidence department as (big) game day approaches (unless it's the Gators or Cards the 'Cats are about to thrash). Like a turtle shirking from daylight as footsteps approach, I revert to a "if it can-go wrong, it will" mindset as the 'Cats' struggle with an allegedly superior opponent nears.
Even though I wrote this piece Thursday entitled "Can-Do 'Cats," reiterating not the shortcomings of Kentucky, but instead focusing on what the 'Cats can do, I still was not a true believer -- I got the idea for the post from Butler Bulldog head coach Brad Stevens, who, when asked during his mandatory media op, how is Butler, a so-called mid-major, able to consistently challenge the supposed big boys, answered in his best John Wayne deadpan (paraphrasing) -- We focus on what we can do, not on what we can't do, or can't control.
In spite of my misgivings, Stevens' words inspired me to write about the positives Kentucky brought to the floor in their match-up with OSU, such as, UK's ability to score from anywhere on the floor, take care of the basketball, play defense, and rebound. I also wrote about the 'Cats' team speed, as well as the unmatched improvement of Josh Harrellson, and the fact that I liked the point guard match-up of UK's Brandon Knight vs. OSU's Aaron Craft.
All real and valid reasons Kentucky would have a -- as I put it in Thursday's post -- "fighter's chance" in the game. But did I expect UK to win? No, and I went so far as to write in a Q&A with an OSU site (it wasn't published because I got my answers in too late) I thought the 'Cats would go down 76-71 in a valiant effort.
Luckily, the magnificent mistake I made as I pondered UK's chances of beating the Buckeyes was; I didn't factor into the big game equation the ferocious fight found within the 'Cat; the size of the heart beating within the chests of the boys in blue ... or should I say, Men in Blue. Because, if they weren't already, the fellas wearing "Kentucky" across their chests displayed why college basketball at the highest level is a man's game; not for the faint of heart, or those without the constitution to go grab what they feel is theirs, and make it their own. And that is exactly what Kentucky did so expertly Friday night in Newark.
From the high-velocity fastball Josh Harrellson threw at Jared Sullinger's chest in order to save precious possession (causing Sully to stare at Harrellson during the entirety of the ensuing timeout, paying absolutely no mind to coach Thad Matta), to the 'Cats willingness to dive, fight, scrape, and claw for every 50/50 ball, they displayed what it means to want to win in a game best described as a hardwood war of monstrous proportions. The youthful 'Cats knew. They knew every possession counted, they knew every shot was live or die, they knew every free throws value was multiplied, worth many times over the one point credit given on the scoreboard.
In the end, immeasurable heart is what won this game. Actually, immeasurable heart and nearly flawless late-game execution won this game. In addition, coach John Calipari opting to put defensive dynamo Liggins on point guard Craft (an effort to disrupt as much as possible the flow of OSU's offensive sets) is what won this game ... along with immeasurable heart and nearly flawless late-game execution. Also, Josh Harrellson playing as if his best friend's life depended on his performance is what won this game ... along with immeasurable heart, nearly flawless execution, and coach Cal putting Liggins on point guard Craft. But then again, I suppose one has to include Brandon Knight and his uncanny ability to, not only want the last shot, but make the last shot, is what won this game ... along with immeasurable heart, nearly flawless late-game execution, coach Cal putting Ligs on Craft, and Harrellson playing as if his best friends life depended on his performance.
All aspects of the game I failed to take into consideration as I prepared for the worst.
On one hand, though, the 'Cats made me and so many others who write about Kentucky, look pretty good. After all, the 'Cats scored from all over the floor, they played unbelievably sticky, Dentin-defense, Josh Harrellson more than held his own against Sully, and Craft was (for the most part) taken out of the game by DeAndre Liggins, leaving Knight, and his evolving big play, game-winning-shot-making persona, the victorious point guard. But on the other hand, what I didn't write about was what eventually won the game for Kentucky.
It wasn't the stats, or the match-ups, but rather the intangibles that make a good team suddenly great, that so many times we overlook as we scroll through the vital statistics of each team, which is responsible for the Commonwealth's jubilation. What I forgot as I evaluated the game was that heart can't be measured, but the result of that bountiful Big Blue heart can be read in today's sports page's headlines: Kentucky 62 Ohio State 60.
Basking in the glow of an unexpected can-do 'Cat victory? Priceless.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!
For A Sea of Blue's Elite Eight Open Thread, go here.