One beautiful win equals one giant step forward

Wildcats display what is easily their best performance of young season

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 4, 2008 

John Clay

So this time what happened in Vegas didn't stay in Vegas.

It improved on Vegas.

Four days after winning the Las Vegas Invitational, Kentucky whipped visiting Lamar 103-61 Wednesday night, and easily looked the best the Cats have looked this young season.

Easily.

The Cats shot 64.4 percent. They dished out 25 assists. They turned it over just six times in the first half, which for them qualifies as a near dream half. They got a career-high 31 points from Patrick Patterson. DeAndre Liggins hit all six of his shots. Jodie Meeks' stat line showed six assists and just one turnover.

"This was a major step forward," Coach Billy Gillispie said.

To be sure, there was one extremely scary episode, the head-on collision seven minutes into the first half that sent Michael Porter to the locker room for 10 stitches over his left eye and Ramon Harris to the University of Kentucky Hospital for precautionary tests.

Post-game reports were that Harris was able to move all his extremities and that the initial tests looked good but that the junior was in considerable pain.

"We pray Ramon's OK," said Gillispie, who got choked up a couple of times in the post-game press conference when talking about the collision, which happened during a loose ball, and the aftermath.

"Those guys are family members," the coach said.

It isn't downplaying the incident, however, to say that the Cats continued what they started. They continued the momentum they fostered out in Vegas, beating Kansas State on a late Friday night, then storming back in the second half to sack West Virginia in the finals.

But those two were ugly, turnover-filled affairs, won more with heart and will than with beauty and execution. The Cats committed 31 turnovers in the Kansas State win. They scored all of 16 points the first half of the West Virginia game. Beautiful basketball it wasn't.

Wednesday night was different. Wednesday was high-flying dunks at the end of crisp half-court passes. Wednesday was hard cuts and power dribbles. Wednesday was feeding the post and breakaway baskets.

"This is the closest we've come to playing like we've practiced," Gillispie said. "We had our best practice of the year (Tuesday), and we came close to playing like that."

"That's how we practice," Meeks said. "We hit the open man. We hit the open shots. We played with a lot of energy."

The reason? Gillispie credited pace. The Cats were faster, quicker, able to move the ball up the court without turning it over. And once in the front court, they kept the possession going, feeding cutters, working for good shots. That's how you get 25 assists.

You can say that Lamar was an inferior opponent. And the Cardinals aren't North Carolina or even West Virginia. But the visitors did enter Rupp 5-0. They had beaten some people, most notably Rice. They knew how to play a little.

"That's a good team," Gillispie said afterward.

For maybe the first time this year, you could look at Kentucky and honestly think the same thing.

His soap opera week now fading, Liggins scored 16 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished four assists. Josh Harrellson drilled back-to-back three-pointers at one point. Kevin Galloway contributed five assists in just 19 minutes.

Harris hit his first three-pointer of the year before his head-knocking with Porter.

Yeah, Patterson grabbed only two rebounds — "He's got to rebound better, and he knows that," Gillispie said — but so what?

"I thought every one of them played well," Gillispie said.

Just when you thought that this might be a Kentucky team that wins ugly, the Cats turn in a thing of beauty.

Reach John Clay at 859-231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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