COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Among the many Kentucky fans in Reed Arena Saturday was wounded Iraq war veteran Matthew Bradford. For him, Aggieland this day represented blue-tinged heaven.
"Really, I'm all about Kentucky," he said before UK's 72-68 overtime victory. "If you ask my wife, everything is about Kentucky."
A Purple Heart recipient, Bradford suffered grievous injuries when he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Iraq in January 2007. He became a double amputee. The explosion also blinded him as shrapnel penetrated his left eye and peppered the right. He also broke several bones in his right hand and sustained injuries to his intestine.
Bradford, 26, grew up in Winchester and now lives in Lexington with his wife, Amanda, and their infant daughter, Layla.
"I love Tom Leach," Bradford said of UK's radio play-by-play man. "Even if the game's on TV, I'll mute the TV."Leach and analyst Mike Pratt give a more detailed description, which Bradford needs and enjoys.
Bradford, who wears prosthetic legs, used a cane to get to his seat near the corner of the court. He wore a Nerlens Noel No. 3 jersey under a white jacket. UK logos were sprinkled on his beige shorts.
Bradford said he got the tickets from a retired general. Rusty Hicks, a former Big 12 football referee who now heads an organization called Combat Marine Outdoors, accompanied Bradford. He described the action, of which there was plenty.
Bradford attends Bluegrass Community & Technical College. He's studying communications and hopes to become a broadcaster.
"I love sports," he said. "UK is where I want to go (as a broadcaster)."
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 led Bradford to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. "Since 9/11, I wanted to deploy," he said. "I wanted to give back."
He retired as a Marine corporal in July, 2011.
When asked if his war wounds caused him to regret joining the military, Bradford answered quickly.
"Oh, definitely not," he said. "It basically made me grow up."
Nerlens Noel took only one shot at Ole Miss earlier in the week. He matched that with a dunk 52 seconds into the game.
That was the first of his 10 shots, the most Noel has taken since shooting 14 times against Baylor on Dec. 1. His 19 points topped his previous high this season (18 against LIU Brooklyn).
In two games against A&M, Noel scored 34 points and made 11 of 16 shots.
"Just a different type of game," Noel said of going from a school-record 12 blocks to a career-high 19 points in five days. "I needed to step up on offense and be an offensive leader."
With a hint of a smile, he added, "I try to keep a good balance with it."
UK Coach John Calipari saluted Noel's willingness to accept not getting more shots.
"Noel was a beast," the UK coach said. "We didn't throw it to him enough."
Freshman 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein played for the first time after missing four games because of what UK described as a "minor procedure" on his left knee. He played four minutes, all in the first half.
"I just wanted him to get out there and get his wheels under him," Calipari said.
The UK coach said it would not have been fair to use Cauley-Stein in the second half when the score tightened and the tension rose.
Cauley-Stein had one rebound, one turnover and one foul. He missed his two free throw attempts.
No Billy G
Although he reportedly planned to attend the game, former UK Coach Billy Gillispie was not believed to be in Reed Arena.
Gillispie had a conflict in trying to sell his house in Lubbock, said Peter Warden, A&M's Internal Operations director.
Gillispie also was in the midst of planning a fishing trip in Mexico, Warden added.
Warden came to UK with Gillispie from A&M. He said he spoke to Gillispie earlier in the day.
Gillispie has attended A&M games. He has had a secret undisclosed location in the arena where he waits, then slips into a seat unnoticed, former A&M spokesman Collin Killian said.
Calipari saluted A&M Coach Billy Kennedy for changing how the Aggies defended the low post. UK expected A&M to double-team a low-post scorer.
"We worked on the trap in the post," Calipari said. "Waste of time, obviously."
Kennedy said of UK's coaching, "Everything we did they countered. Going seven of 15 from the three-point line was big because our game plan was to force them to shoot threes and hope they missed."
Not a sellout
The attendance was announced as 10,558.
That was A&M's second-largest crowd of the season. The Aggies drew 11,046 for their game against Florida on Jan. 17.
The upper level behind the basket closest to the A&M bench had only seven people moments before tip off.
The listed capacity of Reed Arena is 12,898. The record home crowd remained the 13,717 that saw A&M play Texas on Feb. 27, 2010.
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com