OMAHA, Neb. — Even if Billy Gillispie rejected the notion, Kentucky's winning play against Creighton Monday night could have served as an advertisement to save his coaching job.
Coming out of a timeout with 17.9 seconds left and trailing by one, UK executed in the clutch. With an assist from lady luck, Kentucky beat Creighton 65-63 in the National Invitation Tournament second round.
Jodie Meeks hit an awkward flip shot while being fouled with 10.6 seconds left to win it.
"I saw my (defender) was going to try to take a charge," Meeks said. "I was kind of sideways. I heard a whistle and threw it up. Kind of a lucky shot."
Never miss a local story.
After a difficult season culminated by speculation that UK will fire Gillispie, a bit of luck must have felt good.
That added perspective to the winning shot coming after a timeout. But Gillispie refused to take a bow.
"It's not about drawing up a play," he said. "It's about a player making a play. ... It had nothing to do with coaching."
Gillispie drew up a play involving UK's two leading scorers. Think of Tasmin Mitchell and Marcus Thornton collaborating in Louisiana State's victory at UK last month. This time, Meeks would play off a screen by Patrick Patterson.
When Meeks saw his man prematurely avoid Patterson's screen, he drove to the basket.
Another defender looking to take a charge forced Meeks to improvise.
Creighton had a shot to win it. But Booker Woodfox, who led the Bluejays with 18 points, missed a three-pointer from the left corner in the final seconds.
Again, lady luck was on Kentucky's side.
"I saw the ball going in," Patterson said. "Somehow, some miracle, maybe some breeze pushed it to the right."
Coincidentally, a tornado had been spotted about 60 miles away earlier in the night.
Meeks' shot nudged Kentucky into the NIT quarter-finals. The Cats (22-13)will play at Notre Dame on Wednesday night with a spot in the semifinals in New York on the line.
Meeks, who was benched apparently for a defensive lapse early in the second half, led the Cats with 16 points.
Perry Stevenson added 13 and Patterson 12.
Patterson became the 57th UK player to surpass 1,000 points for his career. He now has 1,002 points and achieved the feat in 58 games, making him the 10th fastest to do so.
Creighton finished 27-8. A crowd of 16,984 — the Bluejays' fifth-largest home crowd of the season — watched the game.
If anyone needed evidence that Kentucky wanted to win, this game provided it. Guts and guile kept Kentucky close in what could have been a killer first half.
Two quick fouls put Patterson on the bench with 15:07 left, erasing UK's advantage inside.
"I thought we had an advantage inside, huge," Patterson said. That advantage was apparent on the game's first play: Patterson's strong dunk off a feed into the post.
With Meeks limited to one three-point basket, Kentucky played the half without its two proven scorers. That was most painfully on display when Josh Harrellson, subbing for Patterson, missed three straight shots in the shadow of the rim. Or when Meeks missed a contested fast-break dunk.
Good defense, mixed with a few questionable Creighton shots, kept Kentucky close. Creighton made 11 of 34 first-half attempts.
The second half began on a down note for Kentucky. Gillispie benched Meeks apparently because his man, Woodfox, got free for an inbounds pass and scored.
After returning, Meeks hit two free throws to put UK ahead 49-48 (the fifth lead change). Creighton's Justin Carter answered with a three-pointer over Patterson.
Kentucky's next possession did not suggest a happy ending. With Creighton denying Meeks the ball, the Cats dribbled and moved the ball aimlessly.
Finally, it got to Patterson in the low post. But with the shot clock inside three seconds, he had to rush up a shot that hit off the side of the backboard. The shot clock violation preserved Creighton's 51-49 lead.
After Woodfox's third three-pointer put Creighton ahead 59-56, UK called time with 3:44 left (and 11 seconds showing on the shot clock).
The execution started out perfect. Michael Porter drove and flipped a pass to Stevenson for a layup ... except Stevenson fumbled the pass out of bounds.
"Too much butter in the pre-game meal," Stevenson joked. "I need to cut back on the butter."
The Cats looked defeated as they headed to the bench for the game's final TV timeout.
Kentucky was not beat. Not yet.
Creighton broke the game's final tie (60-60) when Kenny Lawson dunked while being fouled. The three-point play put Creighton ahead 63-60 with 1:26 left and set up the dramatic finish.