Date story published: Thursday, January 4, 2007
Closing minutes of a highly-competitive game. Tenacious opponent. Demanding fan base quick to voice its displeasure.
No place for the meek. But for Kentucky freshman Jodie Meeks, it's an ideal place to excel. Despite his tender years, Meeks continued to build on his reputation for personifying the way Hemingway defined courage: grace under pressure.
Meeks, who previously came through in high-stakes games against rivals Indiana and Louisville, played big down the stretch of UK's 77-70 victory over Houston last night.
Kentucky, 11-3, needed Meeks and others to make clutch contributions because Houston used a collapsing zone defense to contain UK's leading scorer and rebounder, Randolph Morris. Morris has been playing so well that his game-high 20 points and 10 rebounds constituted containment.
So up stepped such players as senior Sheray Thomas and freshman Derrick Jasper, who each made only their second three-point shots of the season.
"They screwed up my scouting report," Houston Coach Tom Penders said with a smile.
But Houston withstood those bolts from the Blue with a barrage of three-pointers. The Cougars' 11 treys matched a season high for a UK opponent.
An old-fashioned three-point play by Houston tied the score 68-68 with 2:51 left, setting up a dramatic finish.
As he made the clutch free throws late against Indiana and the three-pointers that helped beat Louisville, Meeks came through again.
After a post-up basket by Morris put UK ahead, Meeks rebounded a missed free throw by Thomas, paused, then drove purposefully to a three-point play that put the Cats ahead 73-68 with 1:57 left.
"You don't do that unless you're mentally tough," UK Coach Tubby Smith said, "and you have confidence in who you are and what you're capable of doing.
"Jodie is probably the strongest (of UK's players) in that particular area. He doesn't let anything faze him."
Meeks, who grabbed a career-high nine rebounds and scored eight points, credited his father, Orestes, for the ability to make clutch plays.
"When I was real little, he trained me," Meeks said. "He yelled at me all the time. I've always had a pretty strong mind."
The coaching and yelling from dad started when the UK player was 5 years old. The guard from Norcross, Ga., long ago learned how to handle being yelled at by a coach and other anxious moments.
"I try not to think of stuff like that," Meeks said of pressure situations. "I just play on instinct."
Baseball also helped, he said. He was the pitcher who had to throw a strike on a 3-2 count with the bases loaded.
"Pitching is a hard thing to do," he said. "It's harder than making free throws. No one's out there but you. In basketball, you have your teammates to help you."
Because of the attention of Houston's defense, Morris needed help.
Morris tied his season high of two assists barely two minutes into the game, signaling that shots would be hard to come by. Morris only got off 10.
Houston switched to a zone late in the first half to further restrict Morris. UK had an unlikely answer. Jasper hit his first three-pointer since the Mississippi Valley State game on Nov. 17. His second trey of the season (and first attempt since the Chattanooga game on Dec. 5) put UK ahead 34-30.
Another rare trey kept Kentucky ahead in the second half.
After Houston tied it at 44, Thomas made a three-pointer from the top of the key. He had made only one trey this season (against Massachusetts) before giving UK a 47-44 lead.
With Morris surrounded by the Houston zone, it appeared UK would need such contributions to win.
Another Houston three-pointer tied it 60-60 with 8:11 left.
Meeks kept Kentucky ahead by rebounding his own miss and scoring.
"It wasn't Randolph buckets that beat us," said Penders, whose team lost its fourth straight and fell to 5-7. "The rebounds they got that we didn't quite grasp. The second-chance points they got late."
With Meeks grabbing several, those plays enabled Kentucky to beat Houston.
"He's a clutch player," Morris said of Meeks. "When he plays in a game, he just reacts. It's all instinct. Jodie just plays on emotion.
"One thing I tell everybody: He doesn't let anything affect his play."