When discussing a basketball team, toughness can be described in many ways, and can mean different things to different people. One of the most widely held definitions of toughness within the (basketball) team concept is a team's ability to overcome obstacles, in some cases, mountainous obstacles.
In No. 1 Kentucky's 73-64 come from behind win over a reeling Mississippi State squad, the 'Cats, after being whipped in every phase of the game in the first half, and with an inspirational halftime lecture from their head coach still resonating in their ears, came out of the locker room for the second stanza with one thing on their minds, climb back into the game possession-by-possession, rebound-by-rebound, shot-by-shot, stop-by-stop. Offensively the 'Cats, instead of continuing to play the shrinking violet, fearful of contact, became the team they've been all year. One which invites contact and relishes the hoop-and-harm.
Defensively, Kentucky defended the paint like it was its living room, and extended the defense to choke off MSU's --on this night anyway -- incredibly accurate 3-point shooters. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist put the brakes on Bulldog point guard Dee Bost's career night (he had 16 first half points, five in the second), and Doron Lamb, after being back-doored in the first stanza on more than one occasion, locked up MSU guards Brian Bryant and Jalen Steele with attentive defense.
The second half Lazarus-like re-animation of the 'Cats should, if nothing else, bring a sense of satisfaction to the team's coach, and serve as assurance to those mentally vested in the outcome of each Wildcat game. For UK's toughness, maturity, and focused second half performance provided us all with a glimpse of how this team performs with its collective back against the wall, the odds of winning stacked high, ready to cruelly smother the flames of title talk.
A team of full of youth, led by a selfless, deferential senior in Darius Miller, grabbed the game by the ears, and simply imposed its will on the opponent. An opponent with every reason to be confident, with every reason to believe it was better than Kentucky. Give such a team, a team with very real talent, an ounce of confidence, especially when playing at home, and most times the overwhelmed visiting squad flees the arena, ready to put an ugly loss in the rear-view mirror.
But this isn't most times, and this Kentucky team isn't most teams.
This Kentucky team, after giving up 41 first half points, held MSU to only 23 points in the second half; this Kentucky team, after scoring only 28 first half points, responded by creating offense out of their defense resulting in 45 second half points; this Kentucky team, after allowing Mississippi State to shoot 48.3% in the first half, held the Dogs to a meager 32.0% second half accuracy; this Kentucky team, after allowing MSU 16 first half points in the paint, gave up only six paint points in the second stanza ... six; this Kentucky team, after scoring a single two-point basket off MSU turnovers in the first half, took second half advantage of the Bulldogs' miscues, scoring 11 points off turnovers; this Kentucky team, after shooting 38.7% in the first half (12-of-31), connected on an even 50.0% of its shots in the second (13-of-26).
I believe the kids these days refer to that as flipping the script.
I believe Darius Miller put it this way:
"When we started playing defense, started locking down, that's what got us going. That provided us with opportunities to make shots like that. It wouldn't matter if we were making shots if we weren't locking the other team down. All those shots wouldn't have counted if we weren't stopping them from scoring."
With their dedication to defense giving the Cats a chance at victory, the team's unteachable will-to-win kicked into high gear at around the 8:00 minute mark, hastened by a 3-pointer by Miller with 7:56 left in the game, pulling the Cats within four at 55-51.
After a layup by Terrence Jones made the score 55-53 MSU, the Bulldogs responded with their own mini-run, scoring five straight to push the lead back to 60-53 with 6:28 remaining.
The 'Cats then went to work in earnest, turning a probable loss into their 20th win in a row.
Led by Miller, who with steely-eyed determination drilled two trifectas (one off an assist from MKG, with the other dime going to Lamb who was filling in at point), and added three free throws after being fouled on a trey try, as well as Kidd-Gilchrist, who put the 'Cats up to stay 63-62 with an all-effort put-back, Kentucky's thoroughbreds raced to the finish line, leaving the Bulldogs to lick their wounds, and wonder what happened.
John Calipari said about the final minutes of the contest:
"This kid (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) guarded and this kid (Darius Miller) made shots. You know what I said to them as it was winding down is, everyone here makes plays right now ... you all now are making plays, and we're real good when we do that."
In the Calipari era of Kentucky basketball, championship aspirations have at times been tempered by the ever-youthful Wildcat squad. But this team, regardless of age and experience, seems to have acquired somewhere along the way a mental toughness capable of withstanding the body blows given by a team bent on upsetting the Wildcat apple cart. This team believes, despite their inexperience. They believe in themselves and they believe in one another, with the result being athletes playing for their teammates and not for the glory of one, which in today's college basketball world is the very definition of toughness.
And that my friend, is a championship state-of-mind.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!