Cheered on by a raucous crowd in Memorial Coliseum, Kentucky outlasted UNLV 70-60 Tuesday night in the National Invitation Tournament first-round game.
"I don't think anybody in the building wanted us in this tournament," UK Coach Billy Gillispie said in acknowledging the disappointment of not making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991.
"But I doubt anybody (in Memorial Coliseum) didn't enjoy the game. I think they had the right attitude and the right approach to try to help us. We need the help."
Showing they cared about playing in the NIT, the Cats also delivered the kind "5 percent" improvement necessary to win games that Gillispie talked about on Monday.
UK needed clutch play after squandering most of a 20-point second-half lead. But with the margin down to 60-57 and four minutes remaining, UK made the plays and got the stops. No sequence was more memorable than when Patrick Patterson dove on the floor for a loose-ball rebound of a Darius Miller miss. The Cats got two Jodie Meeks free throws with the bonus possession to build a 65-57 lead with 2:58 left.
"Those are the things that determine games, things we've probably been missing," Gillispie said.
Meeks scored six of his team-high 19 points in the final three minutes. Patterson added 16 points and 11 rebounds. Perry Stevenson added 10, including a dunk over UNLV's Joe Darger that sent happy UK fans into delirium.
Kentucky, 21-13, advanced to the NIT second round. The Cats will play the winner of Wednesday night's Creighton-Bowling Green game. The game will be either Friday, Saturday or Monday.
UNLV, which got 14 points from senior guard Wink Adams, fell to 21-11.
The crowd's enthusiasm was impossible to ignore. And UK gave the fans plenty to cheer about in a first half that ended with a 36-24 lead for the home team.
Patterson capped the half perfectly. He dunked Miller's driving miss a split-second before the buzzer to set the halftime score. "A huge momentum builder," he called the dunk.
Poor shooting helped Kentucky take charge. The Runnin' Rebels were not the good-shootin' Rebels in the opening 20 minutes. The visitors made only three of 17 three-point shots, a stunning number given UNLV's ranking as No. 57 in threes per game (7.5).
In one stretch, UNLV missed 10 straight. But with no noticeable inside game, the Runnin' Rebels had to keep launching. UNLV tried plenty of options with six of the nine players who saw action in the half shooting at least one three.
"Our whole thing is eventually they'll start falling," Adams said.
Momentum continued with Kentucky to start the second half. UNLV called time with 18:26 remaining and the Cats ahead 42-24.
In those opening 90 seconds, Stevenson posted up, took an entry pass and scored just like Basketball 101 suggests. Even when a turnover loomed, Kentucky benefited.
Patterson bounced an entry pass off his foot, Ramon Harris retrieved the loose ball and passed to an open Meeks. UK's leading scorer swished a three-pointer to give the Cats an 18-point lead.
Kentucky seemed poised for a big victory with a 20-point lead with barely 13 minutes left. Well, maybe "poised" is the wrong word as the Cats wobbled down the stretch against UNLV's trapping defense.
Miller and Meeks picked up their dribble and invited UNLV traps.
"You still see immaturity," Gillispie said. "We get a 20-point lead, we relax, we don't contest shots like we did."
UNLV got within 56-47 when Adams hit a three-pointer at the 9:23 mark. That marked the first time since the final minute of the first half that Kentucky did not have a double-digit lead.
After a Kentucky timeout, UNLV kept charging with a sudden and sustained burst of good shooting. The Runnin' Rebels made five of six three-point shots in a stretch that saw the Kentucky's one-time 20-point lead reduced to 60-52 at the third television timeout.
Two Adams free throws made it 60-54 with 7:03 left. When Darger hit a three with 4:05 left, the Kentucky lead stood at 60-57. That completed a 19-4 UNLV run, setting up the final dramatics.
"Nothing's easy for us," Gillispie said. "We're not looking for anything easy."