I admit it. I was worried about several things when I arrived at Rupp Arena Tuesday night to cover the Tennessee game. I was worried about my journey home as I-75 North was backed up for miles when I was coming in to Lexington around 4:30. I was worried about the incoming winter storm as it was advertised as including lots of freezing rain, which happens to be my absolute least favorite weather event for driving. I was worried the line for ice cream would be too long and I’d have to leave Rupp without enjoying that wonderful treat.
I was worried Kevin Knox would once again look a little lost on the court. I was worried Nick Richards would once again struggle. I was worried we’d never see another one-two punch of Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the same game. I was worried the Cats would dig themselves another deep hole from which they would have to fight to escape.
Yes, I was worried about many things, but one thing I was not worried about was the Cats being able to win this game.
In the end, all of my worries were for naught and the one thing I wasn’t worried about bit me.
Yes, the traffic was still a hot mess on I-75 and it took me about 25 minutes longer to get home, but I was still able to avoid the winter storm. I planned ahead during the game and got in line for ice cream with about 1:30 left in the first half.
The Cats came out with energy and focus, albeit with a bit of cold shooting for the first few minutes. But they stood toe-to-toe with Tennessee, arguably one of the hottest teams in the nation right now, and never led by more than 4 points. Quade Green had a perfect first half from the field (4-4 FG and 2-2 from 3-point territory). While none of the other Cats was lighting up the nets, their defensive effort was solid.
In the 2nd half, Knox came alive and finished with 10 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steal. Nick Richards had a solid effort the entire game and ended with 5 points, 8 boards, and a block. Gilgeous-Alexander added 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists.
Up until the final 30 seconds of the game, I still was not worried about the Cats getting the win. Two small mistakes (3 if you count Cal’s failure to call a timeout), and suddenly it was over. A turnover by Shai led to a 3-point basket by Lamonte Turner. Green had the assignment of guarding Turner and after having played solid defense all night, failed to get his hands up leaving Turner a clean look at the hoop.
After the game, everyone was taking responsibility for the loss. Richards said it was mistakes by everyone. Gilgeous-Alexander said it was his 2 turnovers in the final minute. Green said it was his failure to shut down Turner. But the one who wanted to take the loss solely on his shoulders was none other than Coach Cal:
“This one’s on me,” Calipari said. “It’s not on this team. This team did everything they could to try to win the game. This is such a young team and I could see with how they crowded the court and they were being physical, pushing guys around and into each other, I should have called a timeout. At least 10, 12 seconds to go I should have seen it and with—when I saw it I kind of let it going hoping he would make it. You can’t hope, not with these kids. That game was in my hands to do something with and I dropped the ball. It’s not these guys. These kids did what they were supposed to. That was a hard-fought game against a team that’s winning five games in a row, now six. We’re struggling a little bit and we come out and have that kind of effort? Proud of these kids.”
Will this be what ultimately gets through to the team? Taking responsibility and moving forward? Only time will tell. The road doesn’t get any easier for the Cats as they next travel to Texas A&M on Saturday and then take on the league’s best team (Auburn) on the road as well. Kentucky is getting close to desperation time and every win is precious now.
But I’m not worried. Yet.
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