Date story published: Sunday, February 17, 2008
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Coming off its most lopsided conference loss ever, Kentucky needed to beat Louisiana State on Saturday.
"Real bad," freshman Patrick Patterson said. "After that loss at Vanderbilt, I believe people were starting to think we were the same team that lost to Gardner-Webb early this season."
Senior Joe Crawford saw UK at a crossroads. "This could decide if we go up or down," he said.
With a timely assist from LSU, Kentucky returned to its recent upward mobility with a 67-63 victory. The Cats improved to 13-10 overall and 7-3 in the Southeastern Conference.
Four days after a numbing 93-52 loss at Vanderbilt snapped its five-game winning streak, Kentucky made clutch play after clutch play.
Perhaps as a sign of the game's importance, UK Coach Billy Gillispie made not one substitution throughout the second half. He went with arguably his best five players -- Ramel Bradley, Derrick Jasper, Perry Stevenson, Patterson and Crawford.
"I was aware because I was looking over at Jodie (Meeks) to see if he was going to come in," said Crawford, who led UK with 21 points in a tone-setting performance of grit and determination.
Meeks, who contributed six first-half points, stood near the bench stretching in a seemingly fruitless attempt to alleviate pain.
"In the first half, we had too many different combinations," said Gillispie, who made substitutions 66 and 98 seconds into the first half. "We turned the ball over. Our defense today was fantastic."
The Fab Five played with poise (until wobbling severely down the stretch), which limited LSU's transition opportunities and put the game in a style Kentucky preferred: five on five in the halfcourt.
In that possession-by-possession grind, UK made more plays.
The game's most dramatic moment came in the final 30 seconds with Kentucky clinging to a 61-60 lead.
After an LSU timeout, the Tigers got a rushed three-pointer by Marcus Thornton drenched in second-guess possibilities. It barely grazed the rim, setting the stage for UK to clinch the victory with 6-for-6 free-throw shooting in the final 27.6 seconds.
"I learned something from that, and I'll never put Marcus in that situation again," LSU interim coach Butch Pierre said. "If I had been coaching them the whole year, that wouldn't have happened. Trust me."
Thornton, who former LSU coach John Brady called a "wind-up doll" earlier in the week to describe the player's untamed nature, apparently audibled off the called play: a lob for freshman Anthony Randolph, who led the Tigers (9-15, 2-8) with 24 points and 14 rebounds.
"Down the stretch at crunch time, when they needed a basket, I figured they'd go to him," Patterson said of Randolph.
Apparently, there was some miscommunication about the play because guard and floor leader Garrett Temple saslug"If I'd have realized Anthony Randolph had 24 points, I would have pushed Coach to run a play to get Anthony the ball."
Crawford, who was everywhere but on the bench in the second half, contested Thornton's shot. "Not like I wanted," Crawford said. "I was actually nervous. He hits tough shots like that."
Gillispie found no fault with Crawford's defense. "It looked contested to me," the UK coach said. "Any more it could have been called a foul. ...
"Joe's taken on some kind of -- I don't know if metamorphosis is the right word. Now, all of a sudden, he thinks he's a defensive stopper, which he has been. I really believe he has greater pride in defense than offense now."
The play capped Crawford's inspiring second half that answered Gillispie's call to be more aggressive. "If we were going to win this ball game, I was going to have to put more pressure on their defense," Crawford said.
Crawford's 16 second-half points included more than one clutch basket. With an eight-point second-half lead reduced to 54-53, he hit an improbable three-pointer while falling back into the UK bench.
"I believe the ball was tipped," Gillispie said. "He was basically shooting it from our bench."
With the lead at 59-57 two minutes later, Crawford hit a seemingly impossible two-pointer. Kentucky called for him to post up Terry Martin, who is an inch taller. That seemed fine, but then as Crawford rose for a turnaround jumper, Randolph, who is 5 inches taller, arrived to swat at the ball.
"I didn't think (Randolph) would come," said Crawford, who admitted sheepishly that the play called for him to go to the basket rather than shoot a turnaround from about 10 feet.
"That was really a tough shot," fellow senior Ramel Bradley said. "Not a lot of guys in college basketball can make that shot. He was feeling it."
Kentucky was feeling it after bouncing back from Tuesday's loss with a road victory. The Cats beat an LSU team riding a wave of momentum after winning at Florida mid-week.
"It was good to show what we're made of," Bradley said.
Thinking long-range, Patterson called it "another step closer to being on top of the SEC."