John Clay: UK gains momentum for late push

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 20, 2011 

Maybe the team that has had so much trouble finishing games can stick the landing on the season.

Maybe the young team that has skill but not much experience has gained enough experience to play its best basketball when it counts most.

Maybe the way Kentucky played Saturday in its impressive 90-59 sacking of South Carolina in Rupp Arena is the start of something big.

For the Cats' next act, we'll see whether they take it on the road.

We're down to the final four now, the final four games of the regular season when a team wants to make its final push, to get things right on the freeway to the post-season.

And for the first 20 minutes Saturday, and for much of 40, the Cats played some of their best basketball of the entire campaign.

They held South Carolina without a point for the first 6:09, while they scored 15 points.

"We got some easy baskets off our defense," Terrence Jones said afterward.

Darius Miller did a star turn, burying his first six three-pointers on the way to a career-high 22 points. Jones scored 19 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Brandon Knight contributed nine assists, with one turnover.

The home team shot 55.2 percent for the initial half, 50 percent for the game. They made 11 of 20 threes.

True, South Carolina is no powerhouse. The Gamecocks entered Rupp having lost six of their last seven. But the Cats made Darrin Horn's team play even worse. The visitors shot 21.6 percent the first half. They trailed 50-21 at the break.

"I'm incredibly disappointed in our team that we didn't compete," said Horn, the Tates Creek graduate. "One thing we've prided ourselves on, with all the challenges we have, is that we're going to play hard, we're going to compete. I think we've done that. But tonight, that didn't happen."

Conversely, it didn't take an in-game interview to know John Calipari wasn't all that happy, particularly when his team stumbled through a brief stretch of artless execution in the second half.

"We got up, and they started getting sloppy," said Calipari. "And I said, hey, I'm not looking at the score. I'm looking at how we're playing."

Afterward, as UK was entering the locker room, John Robic, Cal's trusted assistant, turned to the head coach and said, "What did you want, a shutout?"

Truth is, Calipari just wants more. And more. And more. With fewer games to go, it's the time to want more.

Kentucky sits 7-5 in the SEC, mainly because the Cats didn't execute well down the stretch of certain games. Now, they have a chance to execute down the stretch of a season.

Wednesday brings a trip to Arkansas, where John Pelphrey stands on shaky ground as the Razorbacks' coach. The former UK star could use a big win over his alma mater to beat back the critics.

But with a 1-5 road record, Kentucky needs to prove to itself it can play well in a league game outside the friendly confines of Rupp.

"We (played well) today," said DeAndre Liggins, who scored 11 points coming off the bench. "We've got to do it on the road."

After that comes a daunting triple-jump of games — first-place Florida and second-place Vanderbilt at home, followed by Tennessee in Knoxville. On the line is more than just a conference-tournament bye. You don't want to be staggering into the post-season. You want to be soaring.

"We definitely want to make a good push," Miller said. "It's going to be a tough little streak. We've got a lot of talented teams, a lot of good teams (left), so we're all trying to stay focused and stay totally dedicated to basketball and work hard."

Kind of the way Miller is playing his best basketball right now?

"Hopefully," said the man of the hour, "it's all coming together right now, and we can go on a little streak."

At just the right time.

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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