John Clay: Nightmare of Noel injury all too real for UK

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 12, 2013 

  • Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
    TV: ESPNews
    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1; WLAP-AM 630; WWRW-FM 105.5

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — There was 8:03 left in the basketball game when a bad night for Kentucky suddenly got much, much worse.

There was Nerlens Noel lying under the Florida basket, clutching his left knee and screaming in pain.

It's one thing to lose to Florida.

It's quite another to lose Nerlens Noel.

"I'm not thinking about that right now," said UK coach John Calipari, who said only that the freshman forward was taken to a hospital in Gainesville to be examined. "I'm just thinking about the kid."

Thinking the unthinkable.

Even before Noel's injury, it wasn't much fun for the Cats in Florida. For a team that has heard a lot lately about life lessons, this was an object lesson in focus and toughness and experience.

Ryan Harrow drove the lane and Florida's Mike Rosario snatched the ball out of the Kentucky guard's hands.

Alex Poythress went up for a rebound and Florida's Patric Young muscled the ball away from the Kentucky forward.

Archie Goodwin recklessly drove the lane and there was Florida's Casey Prather, anticipating the play, his feet set in stone, to take the charging foul from the Kentucky guard.

"That happened to us about four times," Calipari said.

Florida was older, more mature, more skilled, a team of juniors and seniors in a sport where there aren't many juniors and seniors anymore.

"First of all," Calipari said, "Florida is an outstanding basketball team."

Kentucky was immature, its weaknesses laid open.

"This was almost a game that exposed us physically," Calipari said. "And they did a good job of it."

Something else got exposed. The supposed progress this team has made looked more imaginary than real inside the O'Connell Center. This wasn't Auburn or South Carolina or LSU the Cats were playing. This wasn't even Ole Miss, which the Cats beat in Oxford two Tuesdays ago.

This was the best team in the league, by a wide margin, and Kentucky was nowhere near ready.

"We played soft, scared," said senior guard Julius Mays. "Guys played uptight. We let the pressure get to us."

At the half, UK had more turnovers (11) than field goals (10). Defensively, the Cats were beaten repeatedly to the rim. Ironically, Calipari's team was dusted by the dribble-drive, the Gators proceeding as if they owned an E-Z pass to the bucket.

Calipari said this would be a big game for guards. Unfortunately, Kentucky's young tandem came up small.

Harrow ended up playing just 19 minutes and failed to score. Goodwin had as many turnovers (four) as baskets (four).

Meanwhile, down low, Poythress missed eight of his nine shots. On several of those, he barely got the ball out of his hands before being smothered.

"We had a young team last year," Calipari said. "And we did OK."

Now this young team could be without its best player. Noel left the Dome in a wheelchair, though Calipari said the country's best shot blocker would probably accompany the team back to Lexington.

"The injury came on a hustle play," Florida Coach Billy Donovan said. "He's a hustle-type player."

Indeed, after yet another Kentucky turnover, Noel took off on a sprint the length of the floor to block a fast-break layup by Florida's Rosario. Unfortunately, Noel came down awkwardly on his left knee against the basket support.

He began yelling immediately — a sound likely drowned out by the Big Blue Nation screaming as well — as the O-Dome went quiet. Calipari came out and spent quite a bit of time over Noel as the trainers attended to the forward.

When Noel finally made it to a standing position, four Kentucky players helped carry him off the floor.

"He's our brother," said Mays.

What would it mean to lose their brother for any length of time?

"We're not thinking about that," Mays said.

On a bad night, that worst-case scenario would just be too painful.

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

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