Cats show grit, beat Washington 74-67

Cats put clamps on Washington offense, advance to finals

jtipton@herald-leader.comNovember 24, 2010 

LAHAINA, Maui, Hawaii — An earthquake measuring 4.7 on the Richter scale shook Maui Tuesday night, or was it the collective hearts of Kentucky fans as their Cats and Washington staged a classic November thriller in the EA Sports Maui Invitational?

Kentucky beat — or was it outlasted — Washington 74-67 to advance to Wednesday night's championship game against Connecticut.

And it was an earthquake. Washington guard Isaiah Thomas felt it.

"I did," he said after the game. "I felt the ground shaking and saw the rims moving."

The rims might have looked like they were moving to UK's free-throw shooters, who made only eight of their first 19 free throws. But with the game on the line, the Cats made six of eight in the final minute to seal the victory.

"That means we have the will to win," said a happy UK coach John Calipari, who took satisfaction in his kiddie Cats winning a game shooting less than 40 percent and committing more than twice as many turnovers (15) as assists (seven).

"Lovely," he said. "It's lovely."

A game pitting the nation's leading scoring team against Kentucky's flashy freshmen figured to be fodder for highlight reels. But neither team allowed the other to get untracked.

That fit the scenario Virginia Coach Tony Bennett predicted Monday could beat Washington.

"You have to make them play against a set defense," Bennett said after Washington demolished Virginia 106-63. That game actually lowered Washington's scoring average this young season to 107.3.

Calipari was intent on lowering it much further. He emphasized toughness and got a nitty-gritty game. Washington didn't reach half its average scoring total until the 7:31 mark of the second half.

"In transition, they may be the best in the country," he said of the Huskies. "They're like Noah's Ark. They have a couple of everything."

Kentucky showed its age on several occasions, but had the kind of fortitude to prevail.

Brandon Knight led the Cats with 24 points. Terrence Jones, who got booed nearly every time he touched the ball, added 16 points and a career-high 17 rebounds.

An action-packed first half left UK and Washington almost exactly where they were at tip-off.

Washington led 35-34 at the break, but this was hardly a ho-hum half nor a possession-by-possession struggle of will. It seemed more an endurance test with both teams stumbling at times, but determined to give as good as they got.

Washington delivered the first blow: more a stiff jab to the nose than a haymaker. The Huskies sandwiched two authoritative baskets (the second a fast-break dunk by Justin Holiday) around the first of Knight's eight turnovers.

Calipari called timeout 49 seconds into the game. "The two things we talked about not doing we did," he said.

Once steadied, Kentucky rocked Washington over the next five minutes. The large contingent of UK fans roared as Knight scored five baskets, the last two beating Venoy Overton, so good a defender he's known as "Venoyance" (as in his ability to annoy would-be scorers).

When Eloy Vargas dunked on a rebound, Calipari all but moon-danced in front of the UK bench in mock horror. The Cats led 20-6 with 14:01 left.

"That was the difference in the game," Calipari said of the cushion. "That gave us the gap we needed."

Washington used tight defense to rattle the Cats and slowly eat into the lead. Kentucky scored only one basket in the next 11 minutes-plus. When Washington belatedly unleashed its deadly transition offense on back-to-back possessions, the lead shrank to 23-17.

Darnell Gant, who had made only one three-pointer in Washington's first three games, made the Huskies' first one with 3:12 left. His second with 1:18 left put Washington ahead 33-30.

The Huskies made only three three-pointers a day after blitzing Virginia with 17 (tying a school record).

"We talked more about when those threes don't go down," Washington Coach Lorenzo Romar said.

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