Georgia, Alabama, Ole Miss, Florida, Vanderbilt, and Arkansas -- Those six teams represent the sextet of SEC road losses the Kentucky Wildcats suffered last year, road losses UK coach John Calipari was telling anyone with a microphone about leading up to the 'Cats first league road game of the year against the Auburn Tigers.
Whether it be missed free throws, botched set plays, or players passing up wide open shots, last year Kentucky invented new and depressing ways to lose when not performing its magic in the comfy confines of Rupp Arena. It's not as if the 'Cats were being blown off the visitors hardwood, though, for if one combines the total number of points UK lost its six road games by, the total comes to 18 itty-bitty, maddening points. The definition of close, yet so far, with the "far" being UK's inability to close-out games by valuing possession, making shots, and playing confidently.
Of course, eventually -- more accurately, after the ugly loss to Arkansas-- the youthful 'Cats grew-up, learned to focus in the final minutes, and won close games against Vanderbilt, Tennessee (on the road), Princeton (NCAA 1st Round), Ohio State (NCAA Sweet 16), and North Carolina (Elite Eight), turning what was becoming a disappointing season into one of triumph.
Sometimes memory is a funny thing. Sometimes a long-forgotten recollection comes back to us when a particular smell invades the olfactory, sometimes it's a song which brings back thoughts of yester-year. But this year for UK fans, it was the Indiana game which brought back the unpleasantness of seemingly long ago UK shortcomings. This year's IU game was Kentucky's first road game of the year, a road contest in which the 'Cats failed to execute, both at the free throw line, and much simpler, a foul in the final seconds -- when they had two to give -- as the Hoosiers set up for their final, victory clinching shot. Final second's failed execution ... ah, the memories.
As IU fans stormed the court, resonating in the minds of Kentucky fans was this thought: Uh oh, is this team going to have problems closing out close games? Helplessly wondering if this year's equally young team would suffer the same road fate as last season's 'Cats, Kentucky fans hoped for the best, and prepared for something less.
Then, after a series of UK game-winning performances ranging from dominant to dormant, the 'Cats initial conference road test arrived. At Auburn. Against a coach in Tony Barbee, who knows Calipari's coaching techniques and tendencies better then he knows his own (Barbee played four years with Cal, was a grad assistant at UMass under Cal, and coached six years with Cal at Memphis). Bo knows, but Barbee knows Cal.
Barbee's team, though, is still a work in progress after his one-plus year on the bench. Worse yet, it's a Tiger team which lost their two previous outings by a combined 59 points to Vanderbilt and Florida State. Unfortunately, the Wildcat players know this, and regardless of how enthusiastically Calipari and staff praise Auburn, and warn the squad of the costly price to pay for complacency, overly talented youth, predictably, will almost always behave overconfident and head-strong. The cornerstone emotions of any healthy, incredibly gifted teenager.
And as sure as Rick Pitino is losing his mind due to chronic befuddlement, mighty Kentucky, No. 2 ranked Kentucky, found itself in a dog fight heading down the stretch of its first SEC road contest. Why? Because they did not take the Tigers seriously, and the Tigers, fresh off a "pep" talk from Barbee questioning their manhood and facility to play basketball, came to life when the 'Cats took to the floor.
Behind the inspired play of center Rob Chubb and his 10 first half points, the Tigers found themselves behind by only four -- thanks to a Darius Miller last second 35-foot 3-pointer -- on the strength of 22 first half points in the paint. Twenty-two first half points in the paint for Auburn, and perhaps even more disturbing, UK had only 10 (but hey, the 'Cats took 12 first half three-point shots, something I'm sure Coach Cal was tickled to death with).
The Wildcat mindset was: we can beat this team from the outside, after all, they're playing a 2-3 zone. Wrong. Instead of finding the seams in the zone, instead of relying on mismatches (of which there were several), instead of reversing the perimeter to open up space inside the zone, the 'Cats settled for jumpers. Yes, UK made 5-of-12 from long-range, a very respectable 41.7 percent, but it's not the makes that matter, it's the mindset. In the first half, 44.4 percent of UK's shots were from beyond the arc (12-of-27), in the second, more successful half, the 'Cats 3-point shots accounted for a more reasonable 26.7 percent (8-of-30). In the first half the team didn't execute the game-plan because they felt as if they didn't need to. Some teams might get away with that at home from time to time, but not on the road. Not in the SEC, where opponents' talents are inflated to a startling degree when Kentucky comes to town.
But it's all good. Young players are expected to play like young players, except when it comes time to win. And in this game, on the road, winning time belonged solely to the 'Cats.
John Calipari said after the game,"At one point I looked at the staff and said, 'this has nothing to do with X's and O's, boys. We could be going down,' and that was probably with 10 minutes to go that I said that to my staff."
Ironically, at what must have been very nearly the same moment, just after Anthony Davis scored on a tip-in which tied the score at 47 with 10:22 remaining, I turned to my wife and said, "This should be when they turn it on."
And turn it on the 'Cats did. In the final 10:22 of the game, UK dominated, just as they should have for the entire contest. The 'Cats dominated the boards -- After being battered 31-to-14 on the glass the first 30-minutes of the game, UK claimed 15 of the 19 available rebounds over the second half of the second stanza. The 'Cats dominated the offensive glass -- UK snagged only five offensive rebounds the first 30-minutes, then claimed seven offensive boards (on eight UK misses) in the final 10-minutes. The 'Cats dominated on defense and offense -- Kentucky held Auburn to only 2-of-9 from the field (after AU made 45.2 percent the first 30-minutes), while the Wildcats made 8-of-16 shots down the stretch, drastically improving on the 35.7 percent UK shot the first 30-minutes. The 'Cats dominated the free throw line -- Over the last 3:09, UK made 7-of-8 freebies. Finally, the 'Cats dominated the scoring column -- Crunch time saw UK score 21 points, while Auburn could muster only six.
Did Auburn get tired, wore down? I don't think so. Consider this, UK had six 'Cats play over 24 minutes, and Auburn had eight players play 13-plus minutes. I don't believe Auburn got tired, I think UK got motivated. Whether the team thought, "OK, enough of this playin' around," or, "Cal is going to have a coronary if we don't play better," or "Man, this game's on TV." Whatever it was that spurred the 'Cats, it worked (it is a dangerous game, though, this turning it off, then on, because sometimes when one reaches back for the fastball, it isn't there).
Does this game, against a clearly out-manned opponent, played away from home, signify that this Kentucky team is a team of road finishers? Certainly we don't know that ... yet, but like last year, and the year before, it's gonna be a blast finding out.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!