"Oh man, I mean we fought hard. That is ultimately what it came down to. We made a lot of mistakes, but in the end we just wanted in more than they did."
UK shooting guard Archie Goodwin's words on the Wildcats' GameDay (overtime) must win over Missouri.
Words which have seldom been applicable to this group of 'Cats after any game this season.
This is a group of painfully young Wildcats who's manhood and will to win have been questioned by their head coach, John Calipari, as well as the legions of fans who proudly lay claim to being 'Cat backers. This is a group of Wildcats who one game perform like a top-15-type of team, only to backslide into mediocrity (or worse) only a few nights later.
This is the same group of 'Cats who, after the loss of their best player, Nerlens Noel, laid down and took a historic beating at Tennessee only a week ago. This is the same group of 'Cats who looked completely uninterested in losses to Notre Dame and Baylor, and displayed zero fight in a setback to Alabama.
After being figuratively flogged by its clearly frustrated head coach for much of the season, it has unfortunately taken a back-against-the-wall scenario of win-games-or-participate-in-the-NIT to finally (and thankfully) get the attention of one of the most collectively hard-headed group of Wildcats to pass through Lexington in recent memory.
Whether the reason for Kentucky's (19-8, 10-4) greatly improved play was Calipari's take-their-mind-off-of-basketball approach (the team played dodgeball and tossed footballs around the Craft Center this week), the ego-zapping thought of not making the NCAA Tournament, or the unpleasant presence of Digger Phelps, on this day, this Wildcat squad was fully engaged as the Missouri Tigers made its way into an amped-up Rupp Arena.
"The biggest thing is they had a will to win today," Cal said after the game. "... they all had a will to win. They all went after balls, tried to defend and do what they could do."
Alex Poythress, the subject of much criticism for his penchant for disappearing on both ends of the floor for long stretches of time, finally showed why he was thought to be one of the best players in the country coming out of high school as he erupted for 22 points, seven rebounds, two assists and one steal in 40 minutes of play.
"I tried to make plays," Poythress said. "I just wanted to play hard for my team."
Play hard for my team, Poythress said. Maybe, just maybe, Poythress now gets it. Gets that it isn't about him. It's not about Goodwin, or Ryan Harrow, or Willie Cauley-Stein. It's about all the boys in blue. It's about not wanting to let one's teammates down (like has been done by various players throughout the season), which causes one to perform as if it's the last time they'll bounce a ball.
"We are going to have to learn to play through mistakes," Poythress continued. "Everyone makes mistakes. Nobody's perfect, everyone will miss shots and turn the ball over sometimes."
Whether Poythress is aping his head coach -- the quote above is almost word-for-word what Calipari has been preaching for about two months -- or is sincere with his thoughts, the Missouri post game press opportunity is the first time Poythress has uttered such team oriented sentiments.
Maybe this team has finally learned it's not about the mistakes one makes, it's about getting up off the floor and continuing to execute the game plan in response to the mistake. It's about not laying down when defeat seems imminent, it's about forging the will to be better, to execute better. It's about wanting to win, or more pointedly, hating to lose. Ever.
Being a Wildcat, or at least a winning Wildcat, is about persevering when all seems lost -- not unlike when UK was down by 13 points in the first half and on the verge of once again being throttled. Being a Wildcat is about playing through mental errors and physical mistakes.
"I think we showed a lot of toughness," Goodwin said after the win. "This game right here just showed that we can do it. We just have to continue to build from here and just carry it over from game to game."
It was Goodwin, more than any other Wildcat, who responded to whatever Calipari was selling at halftime. For the Little Rock native not only stood and delivered at the beginning of the second stanza, he put the 'Cats on his back early in the half by making solid decisions with the basketball -- his shortfall all year.
Of UK's first 11 points of the second half, Goodwin scored seven on a 3-pointer, a dunk, and a layup, all sandwiched around a steal. The result of Goodwin's new-found high basketball IQ and apparent will to win? Fifteen second half points on 6-of-6 shooting ( 6-of-6 shooting because Goodwin took zero bad shots), 2-of-2 from distance (his first 3-point make since Jan. 12, a span of 13 shots).
"It is pretty hard to beat the second half I played, I played a pretty good second half. I don't even like speaking high on myself, so that just lets you know how I feel about it," Goodwin said about his performance.
But it was the graduate student, Uncle Julius (Mays), who saved the 'Cats bacon with his dead-eye, timely shooting, as he also stepped up to fill the leadership void left by the injury to Noel.
"Julius was terrific," Calipari said. "The shots he made and the leadership. Look, there was a play where Ryan let a guy turn down a pick-and-roll, and I said, 'Ryan!' Julius looks at me, (saying) 'I got it.' What's better (correcting Harrow) that way? Coming from a teammate (saying) 'c'mon man, you can't do that.'"
Mays smartly recognized his teammate might tune out Cal after hearing the same admonition over and over from the UK head man. Mays snatched the reins of leadership and set straight his wayward point guard, and today UK basketball is the better for it.
It is Mays' Missouri numbers, though, which pop off the page:
Four-of-four from the free throw line in the final thirty-three seconds of overtime (8-9 from the stripe for the game) ... a season-high 24 points (eight in OT) on 4-of-8 accuracy from distance ... six rebounds and three assists ... all while filling the shoes of Noel as the heir apparent leader of a team full of diaper dandies (with an emphasis on diaper).
Perhaps the most telling stat: Mays played 44 minutes of the 45 minute game.
"There is not another person like Julius," Goodwin said about Mays. "He's a great leader and a great big brother to me, he's like my best friend. He is just always there for encouragement when things aren't going our way. He is always the person that pulls me aside to get my head back right."
Wildcat destiny decided by four games
I wrote after the Noel injury that the most important aspect I was looking for out of this team going forward was effort. Not making the NCAA tourney, not winning the SEC Tournament, not getting to 25 wins, not going undefeated. Rather, award-winning effort was, and still is what I expect to see out of this group.
After watching Kentucky play with exceptional focus, team work, and hustle on Saturday night against Missouri, there should be little doubt that, although this team struggles on the defensive end, the Noel-less 'Cats are certainly talented enough to win the games they need to win -- Mississippi State, Georgia -- and split with Florida and Arkansas, if they play with great effort.
Do that, and win at least two games in the SEC tourney, and Kentucky should (easily) have its ticket punched to the Big Dance. And if that happens, a focused, team oriented approach by this squad could result in surprising returns.
But the team has to be all-in. All-in for each other.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!
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