John Clay: The veterans came through for Kentucky

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 9, 2011 

Last Tuesday at Oxford, the veterans were no-shows at the Tad Pad. Kentucky's freshmen excelled at Mississippi while its upperclassmen went missing.

The final result wasn't pretty. The blame was easy. A losing streak began.

One week later, after the streak had stretched to two, after the head coach had officially labeled the circumstance a "crisis," when the going got tough, the old guys got tough.

"We played physical," said John Calipari.

DeAndre Liggins played physical, driving to the basket with a purpose and a passion, scoring 19 points, making five of six shots.

Josh Harrellson played physical, cleaning up around the rim, making seven of eight shots, scoring 16 points and grabbing six rebounds, even taking a first-half charge.

Darius Miller played physical, his stat line of seven points and six rebounds failing to tell the tale of a night in which the junior wrestled the ball from an opponent and exchanged some heated words with the men in orange.

"I thought Miller, Liggins and Harrellson were a big factor in the win," said Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl, who took a loss in his welcome-back-to-the-SEC game.

Kentucky took the win over the Vols, 73-61, a win it had to have after Saturday's loss at Florida dropped Calipari's team to 4-4 in the conference.

What's going on in Egypt is a true crisis, but by just-a-game standards for Kentucky to lose three straight games, including one at home, where Calipari brought a 28-0 record into Rupp as the Kentucky coach, would have been hitting critical levels.

"We had to have a commitment," said Calipari.

"I'm not sure of how John felt about how they played. My guess is that he would be proud of the veterans for stepping up and playing physically," Pearl said. "Kentucky, they can play a lot better than that. But in the areas they had to win, in the areas of toughness and rebounding, they did win."

The players who had to contribute to the win, contributed to the win.

Cal was right a week ago. His freshmen are his best players. But there are only three of them on a team that plays six players. For Kentucky to play to its potential, its veterans have to play to their potential. That means Harrellson, the senior center, and Miller, the junior forward, and Liggins, the junior guard.

In the 71-69 loss at Ole Miss last Tuesday, after Calipari had spent a week talking about how his team belonged to the veterans, the upperclassmen stepped down. The three combined for 10 points. Harrellson scored two points. Liggins battled foul trouble all night. And Miller infamously passed up an open shot in the final minute on a key Kentucky possession.

That was last Tuesday. This Tuesday was different, and you could tell it from the opening tip.

Liggins didn't just dribble the ball to the basket, he drove the ball to the basket. After being nearly invisible since his career game at Louisville, Harrellson reappeared, following in missed shots around the rim. After a week of being a Big Blue punching bag, Miller fought back.

But then maybe Calipari had something to do with that. He said afterward that he brought out the heavy bag, put his players in boxing gloves, and taught them how to jab and punch. It worked. Kentucky didn't punch back against the Vols. It threw the first punch. And kept punching.

Key stretch: Start of the second half after Tennessee scored the final 10 points of the first half to cut the UK lead to 35-28. The Vols followed with the first basket of the second half. No problem. The Cats scored 13 straight points that became a 16-3 run. The trio of veterans scored 11 of those 16 points.

"(Those were) some real energy plays, physical plays," Pearl said, "that were a big difference in the ballgame."

A big difference from the previous Tuesday night.

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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