Remembering Meeks' unforgettable night in Knoxville

Meeks still getting recognized for 54-point spree

jtipton@herald-leader.comFebruary 27, 2010 

From a basketball point of view, you can't get much more anonymous than rookie second-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Bucks. But when former Kentucky star Jodie Meeks was going through security at Los Angeles International Airport this winter, he caught the attention of a guard.

"Hey, man," the guard said. "I saw that game last year against Tennessee."

This surprised Meeks about as much as his 54-point game in Knoxville last season stunned the college basketball world.

"I'm, like, wow," Meeks said this week recalling the LAX security guard. "I didn't know people out here were watching it. Everybody I talk to who knows basketball definitely says, 'I saw that game.' "

On a rainy, cold January night in Knoxville, Meeks broke Dan Issel's 39-year-old UK record for points in a game. Since 1971, only one Southeastern Conference player has scored more points in a game: LSU's Chris Jackson with 55 against Mississippi in 1989.

"I just remember being in a zone the whole game," Meeks said. "Usually, you're in a zone for a couple minutes or a half. Being in a zone for a whole game was kind of crazy."

Although Kentucky plays at Tennessee on Saturday for the first time since Meeks' memorable game, don't expect the Vols to mark the occasion.

"As you can imagine, they don't talk very often about Jodie Meeks' 54 points around here," said Bob Kesling, the radio play-by-play man for Tennessee basketball.

Kesling might be the best person to put what Meeks did in perspective. As a high school student in Dayton, Ohio, he sat in the stands and watched Austin Carr of Notre Dame set an NCAA Tournament record with 61 points against Ohio University in 1970.

Then in 1987, Kesling saw Tony White set a Tennessee single-game record with 51 points against Auburn.

"His shots weren't spectacular," Kesling said of Carr, whose point total remains an NCAA Tournament record. "Austin Carr was just backing guys down and shooting short jumpers. Jodie's shots were spectacular. He wasn't just making routine shots. End of the shot clock. Shooting over hands. It was one of the greatest offensive performances I've ever seen."

More than once, a Tennessee player looked up at the scoreboard in disbelief. Frustration and utter helplessness etched on the faces of the Vols players.

"It's not as if the guys didn't try to stop him," Kesling said. "Or the game plan was poor or wasn't effective. They had stopped Meeks in previous games.

"I just think it was one of those nights he got hit with a wand, and everything he touched went magic."

Meeks made 15 of 22 shots. He hit 10 three-pointers, which set a UK record and stands tied for second-most by any SEC player. He made 14 of 14 free throws, which equalled the UK record for most free throws made in a game without a miss.

Perhaps lost in the blizzard of points were the eight rebounds Meeks grabbed and the four assists. He also committed only one turnover in 39 minutes.

Meeks recalled that his spectacular performance began with an off-key note. His first three-point attempt — off a pick-and-roll play at the top of the key — hit off the glass to the right of the rim.

"I was thinking, man, this might be a tough night," he said. "The next one, I hit it. I threw up another one (that went in). Then, why not try another one?"

In the stands, Meeks' father watched with disbelief. That's saying something because Orestes Meeks had always scoffed at those who doubted his son's shooting ability.

"I remember sitting at that game and thinking, 'Man, is he going to make them all?' " Orestes Meeks said. "I just wanted us to win the game. We were trying to establish ourselves. It was the first really big test on the road (in the SEC). So I just remember being happy and watching that performance. I'd never seen anything like it."

Before the game, Meeks had told his son that if Kentucky lost, he'd return to his Atlanta area home without saying goodbye because he had to work the next day. But after his son scored 54, the elder Meeks stayed to offer his congratulations. He got home at 4:30 a.m.

Meeks hit the half-century mark with a free throw. That the moment came in a Kentucky-Tennessee rivalry game filled with trash talking moved Meeks to needle his defender, UT guard Bobby Maze.

"In case you lost track, that's 50," he told Maze.

"We were up," Meeks said this week. "I figured we were going to win. Why not talk?"

The performance at Tennessee was not a meteor strike. It fit a pattern of brilliance that included 37 points (24 in the first half) against Kansas State, 46 points against Appalachian State and a Bud Walton Arena record 45 at Arkansas.

Meeks' 23.7-point scoring average was the highest for a UK player since Issel averaged 33.9 points in 1969-70.

That kind of sustained excellence contributed to Meeks' decision to stay in the 2009 NBA Draft, where he was taken by Milwaukee in the second round.

"How could he have done any better than last year?" his father said.

By staying in the draft, Meeks missed a chance to play for Kentucky this season. The Cats take a 27-1 record and No. 2 national ranking into the game at Tennessee.

"Obviously, a lot of folks will say he could have been a part of that," Orestes Meeks said. "... Well, he could also be injured. And he could also not being doing as well. He's living the life he wants to live, and he's doing the things he wants to do."

Kentucky figures to be a prime contender for a national championship. Meeks, who was traded from Milwaukee to the Philadelphia 76ers earlier this month, said he was fine with being a UK fan.

"I don't have any regrets about my decision," Meeks said. "I'm doing what I love to do, and it's always been my dream. I'm happy for them and what they're doing. And, you know, I'm happy with my life also."

Orestes Meeks noted another of his son's decisions: to attend UK's first game against Tennessee on Feb. 13, which came during the NBA All-Star break.

"He chose to come to Kentucky for a game as opposed to coming home to see his family," Meeks' father said. "So that should tell you something."

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