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Kentucky's Defense Is a Gift That Keeps on Giving

Date story published: Sunday, December 30, 2007

Even though San Diego led at halftime, point guard and leading scorer Brandon Johnson's body language in the locker room shouted defeat. He slumped in his chair. He hung his head.

"I was kind of down on myself," he said. "I had, like, five turnovers in the first half. I know that's not how you win a game, especially in this place where every possession counts."

Johnson's body language after the game said euphoria. He jumped for joy on the Kentucky logo at Rupp Arena's center court as San Diego completed a stunning 81-72 victory Saturday.

Johnson's 19 second-half points, which came after first-year coach Bill Grier ordered him to stay positive, propelled San Diego to surely the program's most significant victory. It undoubtedly brought proud Kentucky to one of its most distressing basketball junctures. UK, 5-6 after 11 games for the first time since 1989-90, lost a third home game before Southeastern Conference play for the first time.

Ever.

UK Coach Billy Gillispie, whose team earlier lost to the likes of Gardner-Webb and North Carolina, cited a familiar problem as the cause of this unprecedented stumble.

"What we wanted to do before the game started was not let another point guard come in here and just totally control the game," he said. "And that's exactly what happened."

Johnson, who scored a career-high 27 points, credited greater attention to the game plan for his turnaround. In the first half, he was "trying to do extra things." He described the plan as penetrate and kick out to shooters on the perimeter.

Among those on the receiving end were Devin Ginty, a freshman walk-on who had scored five points all season. He didn't miss a shot (5-for-5 overall, 4-for-4 from three-point range, 4-for-4 free throws) en route to a career-high 18.

Ginty, who turned down scholarship offers from Chico State, San Francisco State and "a couple of NAIA schools," noted the defensive attention UK tried to pay center Gyno Pomare and Johnson, both juniors and proven players. He also cited a devil-may-care attitude.

"We didn't have too much to lose," Ginty said. "We just came in knowing we had to play harder than they did. Really compete. We just didn't want to have any regrets coming out of here. And I don't think we have any."

Kentucky, which led for only 48 seconds, acknowledged San Diego's greater hustle. Gillispie cited such areas as rebounding (San Diego won the boards 34-25) and retrieval of loose balls as evidence of a telling superiority for the Toreros.

"I think we had better athletes than they did," the UK coach said. "We didn't take advantage of our athletic ability. We're letting our man catch the ball all the time. And not helping (on defense)."

Gillispie designed UK's defense to disrupt opponents. In Michael Porter's memorable quotation, to shove defense down the opponents' throats.

"They ran the game exactly like they wanted to and we didn't make them do anything different with our defense," Gillispie said. "We're not paying enough attention to the scouting report. To where a guy might go."

UK's only first-half lead came on its first basket: a three-pointer by Ramel Bradley, who scored 11 of his 20 points in the final 3:19 when San Diego looked to nurse a lead to the finish line. The Cats didn't lead again until Ramon Harris hit a fast-break layup with 15:43 left.

Twenty-one seconds later, Johnson tied it with a driving layup. That started a run of 13 straight points by Johnson and Pomare, San Diego's two all-conference players.

San Diego (7-8) took its first double-digit lead with 1:59 left. With the crowd imploring the Cats to mount an improbable comeback, Perry Stevenson blocked a shot but found himself falling out of bounds with the loose ball in his hands. He instinctively saved the ball to Johnson, who laid in a gift two points to put San Diego ahead 69-59 and deflate the rally.

"A play you learn (not) to do when you're a beginning basketball player," Gillispie said of Stevenson's save under the opponent's basket. "You don't do that."

Although UK rallied late by remembering to feed the ball to Patrick Patterson, who equaled Bradley's team-high total of 20 points, Gillispie found no fault with Kentucky's offense.

"Seventy-two points are enough to win at home ... ," he said. "If you're not going to defend and rebound better than that ... this team will have a very difficult time scoring more than that."

San Diego's Grier worried before the game about whether his team could score enough against UK's defense to stay competitive.

Thanks to Johnson, San Diego could.

"I just had my son," Johnson said of a boy, also named Brandon, born on May 1. "I'll tell him about this when he gets older."

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