John Clay: Kentucky must learn to keep the pedal to the metal

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 15, 2012 

LOUISVILLE — To be sure, the first 35 minutes were dynamite.

But those last five ...

OK, so the memory of that Kentucky basketball team that played in New Orleans vanished in about three minutes in the Yum Center on Thursday night.

Terrence Jones was a force around the basket. Doron Lamb was draining jumpers. Marquis Teague was pushing the ball down the floor.

"We were really locked in," senior Darius Miller said.

In its second-round NCAA Tournament South Regional game, overall No. 1 seed Kentucky looked every bit the part, ripping out to a 19-point lead at the half, then a 32-point cushion in the second half on the way to an 81-66 win over No. 16 seed Western Kentucky.

The first 35 were great; the last five, not so much.

"We let up some," Teague said. "We know we can't do that."

Up 80-50 with 5:55 remaining, John Calipari's club was outscored 16-1 by Western Kentucky the rest of the way.

You never thought the Kentucky victory was in doubt, but you caught yourself wondering just what was going on here.

Were the Cats tired? Were they bored? A little of both?

"We lost focus, which we cannot do," Miller said, "especially in this tournament."

Give Western credit. Ray Harper's team played right to the end.

As the Toppers have proven time and again of late, doesn't matter if they are down 13 to North Texas in the finals of the Sun belt Tournament, or 16 with five minutes remaining to Mississippi Valley State in that First Four game Tuesday night in Dayton, the Hilltoppers are going to keep hooping and hoping to the final horn.

"They were hitting shots and things like that," Teague said, "but I think we kind of slowed down and let off the gas. It's hard to keep playing like that when you are up so many points, but we can't do that, we've got to finish the game up."

This being a message that the head coach relayed in his post-game talk to his team, as well, we presume?

"Yeah," Teague said. "He just told us he wasn't worried about us winning by 30 or anything like that. He just wanted us to finish the game. He was kind of a little upset that we didn't do that the way we should have."

That was especially true considering the first 35 minutes had gone so well.

If you worried that there might be some carryover from that Sunday afternoon loss to Vanderbilt in the finals of the SEC Tournament, your fears were squelched fairly early. The Cats shot 61.5 percent the first half.

But it was like a movie with a terrific opening, a heart-pounding middle and then a less than so-so ending. It was not enough to ruin the movie, but it was enough to make you wonder what happened.

Nor was the letdown a product of Calipari going deep into his bench, either. Following the familiar pattern he has shown all year, the Kentucky head coach stuck with his "starting six" right up until finally subbing with 30 or so seconds left.

He wanted to keep the pedal down, even if his team let off the gas.

"They were making shots and we were just breaking down defensively," center Anthony Davis said. "But we've got to learn how to play through the whole game and Coach Cal told us that. He doesn't care about the score, he's just worried about how we play the rest of the game."

Will the message resonate?

"We kind of knew that we shouldn't have done that," said senior Miller. "It was kind of obvious that we shouldn't have played like that. We've got to come out and play the whole 40 minutes. So there was talk about it amongst each other at first and then coach reinforced us."

After all, if the Cats want to meet their goal of winning five more games, they can't play as they did the last five minutes.

"Anybody can get beat on any given night," Miller said, "so we definitely got to come out and play the whole 40 minutes."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com.Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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