After a win earlier in the week against Auburn, John Calipari said this about the Kentucky Wildcats:
“I want this team to finish and be something people talk about for the next 20 years. I’m trying to get them to believe what I believe.”
It is often said that seeing is believing but in reality believing is what gives us the ability to see things that others might miss.
Against the 19th ranked University of Tennessee, the visiting Wildcats let us see what many have been believing all season. The first half was loaded with all the stuff that it takes to win on the big stage. Tough defense, good hustle, diving for loose balls, and great shot selection characterized the opening period of Kentucky.
Isaiah Jackson embodied the heart of the team. In one sequence he went down in a heap only to be in position for the ball to bounce right back to him for a layup. That turn of events is one of the few times the ball has bounced Kentucky’s way all season long. Jackson also gave us the power play of the game as he drove the baseline, swung back under the backboard, and finished the move with a rim rattling dunk.
While Jackson showed us the heart of the Cats, it was Davion Mintz who showed us the hustle of the Cats, on display throughout the game. Quick and confident, Mintz managed to shake open and hit the three just like shooting a layup.
In a first half that at one point found the team shooting over 60%, they may have played one of their best or perhaps the best half of basketball they have played all year. The 15-point lead at halftime was nice, but as most Wildcat watchers are aware, holding the lead has not been the team’s strong suit this season.
Perhaps it was the second half that gave those who were looking closely something to see. Kentucky started the half flat in shooting, but after a meager 1/8 start they also accomplished something that have not done all year. They expanded their lead.
A sloppy offense was saved by a swarming defense that managed to not only keep Tennessee out of sync but enabled the Cats to control the pace of the game. Again, as the minutes disappeared from the clock, the Wildcat team that seemed to have stumbled over themselves often during the season, compensated for the poor shooting with a defensive game highlighted by outstretched arms, quick feet, and an aggressiveness that kept Tennessee on their heels.
As the dreaded last four minutes of the game arrived, the usual “white-knuckle just hang on” ride where we have seen the ball take wonky bounces, leads deteriorate, and referees forget how to use their whistles, found the Wildcats ready to push UT even further away as Devin Askew scorched them with a three pointer to kick off the final four minutes.
Beating a top twenty team is something that has eluded the Cats all year. Coming into Saturday they were an unspectacular 0-5 against ranked teams. We have seen their record, we have watched moments of brilliance get swallowed up in minutes of confusion, but against Tennessee they notched a quality win in style, with ease.
As they come off of this game, perhaps we got a glimpse of what Coach Cal was trying to say … maybe this team is beginning to believe what he believes.
The road ahead is not going to be easy. The Wildcats have positioned themselves into a scenario that finds them desperately needing to win the SEC Tournament to score an invite to the Big Dance. A few weeks ago, that seemed impossible. But the impossible is not so improbable when you have something to believe in.
There were moments when those who still want to believe in this team saw some things that others might have missed. Get ready – the team that played Saturday in Rocky Top came out on top. The season is not over yet.