Every so often, some kid comes into Rupp Arena and absolutely has the game of his entire life. The names still resonate with fans: Joe Crispin, Jason Williams (the white one), Jarvis Hayes, and now Tre' Kelley.
Kelley's second-half heroics (after his first-half ones) nearly brought his South Carolina Gamecocks all the way back from a huge deficit. USC was in that big hole because of a determined and focused Wildcats (18-5, 7-2), who scored a season-high halftime total of 50 points.
But it was a strange game; up and down at times, with lots to love and lots to make a fan scratch his head. It was perhaps the best 20 minutes of offensive basketball the team has played all season, followed by inarguably the worst 20 minutes of defense all season in the second half. It all added up to a 95-89 victory, and a regular season sweep of the Gamecocks.
"It was another Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type of performance. It’s something that we’ve dealt with regularly. I am hoping we can put together a complete game, " Tubby Smith said after the game. "I thought we did some great things tonight –- some solid things."
The Jekyl? Such things as the Cats shooting the lights out for the most part, having 20 assists, getting points from 10 different players and receiving strong games from all three juniors.
And the Hyde: Kentucky game up a mind-boggling 61 points (read that again) in the second half, as Kelley tossed up layups with either hand, USC dropped nine threes and the Cats basically waited for the game to end. Kelley finished with 36 points, a slew of them off-balance with a Wildcat in his grill.
His coach, Dave Odom, was understandably complimentary of his senior star:
"This is my 41st year of coaching and I have had one maybe two other players like him in my career and it really, really makes it worth it because of guys like Tre’ Kelley, who has a passion for the game, a passion for doing things the right way."Finishing a 40-minute game has been an on-going problem for this group, seemingly no matter the opponent. Such lapses in defensive attention will not stand against Florida on Saturday. But don't let the Fraidy Cats scare you, this was a good win.
For now, the Cats' depth and giant lead were enough to prevent an embarassing loss at home in a game that was, for all intents and purposes, over.
Despite the strong start, it was another strong game for the Rupp crowd, who snoozed it up for the most part despite (or maybe because of) the big lead. So much so that the announcers felt inclined to mention how uninspired they were. Granted, the second half was ugly, but what is it going to take to get the Rupp Arena to be loud without the team making them loud? It works both ways.
Sometimes -- I know, this is complicated, so follow me here -- the crowd makes the team excited, not only the other way around. Unimagineable, right? Grrr. It took Derrick Jasper's all-time classic dunk to wake the place up.
Bobby Perry's scoring returned, as the struggling senior had a great start on his way to 18 points. Ramel Bradley's mom surprised him for his birthday, watching him play in person as a Wildcat for the first time. Bradley gave his mother a nice show, with a dominating 21 points and 9 assists.
The big surprise early was Tubby benching junior Randolph Morris for what the coach termed a "team violation." Maybe the violation was Morris' olé defense. Regardless, the big guy responded well, with a 17-point, 8-rebound evening, all in only 22 minutes. Most importantly, Morris played with effort and focus.
And focus is something that the Cats will need to have in droves down the stretch of the season.
For those that were unable to see it, and for those who want to relive it, here is Jasper's unrepentant throwdown: