Photo by James Crisp, AP
This team may be young and flawed, but for forty minutes, they found the one thing they'd been missing all season: heart. As the buzzer sounded to seal Kentucky's 61-57 win over Florida, the players gathered at midcourt to celebrate, the looks on their faces as happy and thrilled as those on the fans in the stands. This group may not make it to a Final Four or defend UK's title, but for those brief euphoric moments after the horn, it didn't matter. They had beaten one of the best teams in the nation, and in the process, buoyed their postseason chances and thanks to Ole Miss' win over LSU, clinched the #2 seed in the SEC Tournament.
After Thursday night, things couldn't have looked worse for Kentucky. The loss to Georgia was an anchor dragging them to postseason irrelevance. But, with seven minutes left and the postseason on the line, they "swam like heck" and lived to see another day. Let's break it down with quotes from Cal and the players.
"I'm forgetting he has four."
I have to start with Willie Cauley-Stein, who finished with six points, eight rebounds and four bocked shots. Most importantly, Willie channeled the spirit of Nerlens Noel, playing the last eleven minutes of the second half with four fouls. It became very clear that without Willie, the Cats would not win. When he went to the bench at the thirteen minute mark, Patrick Young dominated the inside and Florida went on a 10-0 run. Once Willie came back in with 11 minutes left (an unbelievable risky move), they only scored 11 points the rest of the game. With Willie as the anchor, Kentucky showed off their most impressive defense of the season, holding Florida to 0-11 from the field and five turnovers over the final 7:35. Cal gushed about it in his postgame remarks: "That team we had out that last seven minutes, every one of them guarded. They just locked down, rebounded, went and got balls, made a couple shots to get it close, came out of timeouts, did some stuff, listened."
When asked about the decision to bring Willie back in, Cal said he chose to forget that Willie had four fouls because the Cats needed him that much.
"Get me the ball"
As he has done so many times before, Julius Mays stepped up when the team needed him the most. Before his last game in Rupp, Mays said he was going to leave it all on the floor, and he did. Mays scored 13 points off 4-10 shooting from the floor, which may not seem flashy, but he was the steady hand the Cats needed. Before the game, Cal asked each player to write down two things they could do to help the team win today. Julius' two? "I will lead this team and hold everyone accountable for their mistakes" and "I will score 12-14 points." Done and done. Julius laid into both Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin at times during the game for poor play, and with 9.4 seconds left in the game, came up to Cal during the timeout and said "Get me the ball." He did, and Julius delivered with two crucial free throws to ice the game. Could there a be a more fitting (or cruel) goodbye?
Archie the Fighter
As he did vs. Georgia, Archie Goodwin refused to give up, taking the game into his own hands when the offense went stagnant and drawing fouls. Archie led the team in scoring with 16 points, his sixth game in a row in double figures. After the Georgia loss, Archie called out his teammates for a lack of effort and challenged them to play harder. Archie is first and foremost a fighter, and while his game is still very rough around the edges, he provides a spark when things get stagnant. Archie's steal with five minutes left (one of four for him in the game) was crucial in Kentucky's comeback, and love him or hate him, he propels this team forward.
"Alex grew up."
No player was more criticized coming into this game than Alex Poythress. Poythress was called out by his teammates for a lack of effort, and yesterday, he told reporters that he knew he hadn't played hard enough all year and challenged himself to change. Alex finished with nine points and twelve rebounds. How crucial is Alex to this team's success? Kentucky is 5-0 when Poythress gets at least nine rebounds. Calipari said Alex "grew up" today and that for the first time, he asked to come back in after a bad series: "There was one spell that he gave up. He's done that throughout the year. ...Took him out. His teammates got all over him. And he said, Put me back in. He grew up today because he went back in and finished those last seven minutes and was a beast."
Basically, Alex had a "Man in the Mirror" moment: “I just looked myself in the mirror and realized I could’ve been better this whole year, could’ve been better in some areas. It’s time to grow up. ”
You gotta look at yourself and then make the chaaaaange...
"If Ryan plays the way he's capable of playing, we're pretty good."
Cool Ryan was not in the house today. Ryan Harrow shook off a bad run of games and put up thirteen points, two assists and only one turnover. Even better, he operated the offense with confidence, driving the lane and creating opportunities for others. After the game, Cal said that when Ryan plays like that, the Cats are hard to beat.
Photo by @JonathanPalmer
"I haven't seen anything like that crowd."
The crowd...oh, the crowd. In Cal's words, the crowd was "unbelievable." Last night, Cal said that he wanted to find some way to give the Cats an edge today, and knew that that the crowd could "take us over the hump." He took to Twitter and challenged everyone in the arena to stand and cheer for the last eight minutes of the game, a very tall task for the lower arena's elderly. But, Blue Hair showed it cared by answering Cal's cal and standing from eight minutes til the buzzer sounded, which resulted in the most electric atmosphere Rupp has ever seen. The crowd at the Missouri game was great, but today's crowd was unbelievable. Cal said it's the best he's ever seen in Rupp: "That building was unbelievable. That was as loud as we've been in four years. The great thing is the crowd knows this team is so young that they really need them." Archie Goodwin agreed, saying he had never seen anything like it.
The amount of love flowing between the players and the crowd was chilling today. It's a true testament to the Big Blue Nation that when things were as bad as they were on Thursday, that the fans not only didn't give up on the team, but they that they turned around and gave them what they needed to stay alive. I still have goosebumps.
(I don't want to ruin this recap with negativity, so I'm just going to leave it here in these parentheses. For all the good things that happened on the court today, Kyle Wiltjer was still MIA, going 0-7 from the field. Cal knows: "It's hard to leave him in the game if they're scoring on him every time." Okay, enough of that.)
Cal was fired up during the postgame radio show, mentioning the second-guessing from the fans and media about his coaching methods this week: "'You gotta be nicer, it's late in the season...FORGET IT! It's late in the season, it's TIME! It's time right now, let's hold them accountable, I'm not trying to be anyone's friend, let's go for it."
I'm in. See you in Nashville.