Date story published: Sunday, December 23, 2007
The play that created the loudest fan response was a tie-up.
So, yes, Kentucky's 69-47 victory over Tennessee Tech on Saturday had a surreal quality.
With seniors Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley creating pseudo drama by getting themselves benched throughout the first half, Perry Stevenson found himself on center stage late in the half.
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He and Tech's Rashaud Nixon grabbed a loose ball in the lane simultaneously. It was the third tie-up in the first 15 minutes of a game littered with floor burns and side swipes. But this time the two players kept tussling for the ball after the whistle blew. Finally referee Doug Shows put a bear hug on Stevenson and guided the willowy forward away from the gathering players.
Stevenson screamed exhortations at his teammates. Freshman A.J. Stewart bumped his chest into the trunk of Stevenson's body. The crowd chanted Go Big Blue!
Since the Cats stood quietly by as Houston players walked menacingly toward Crawford after an intentional foul earlier in the week, Gillispie had called for more fighting spirit (in the figurative sense).
Patrick Patterson, who dominated inside with career highs of 24 points and 15 rebounds, noticed the change since Houston.
"Huge difference, huge difference," he said. "As soon as Perry got in that (pause) scandal thing. ... It's a real good feeling."
Yet when asked after the game about the sequence, UK Coach Billy Gillispie sounded underwhelmed.
"It's a little bit of improvement," the UK coach said with a shrug.
That might be because Gillispie's mind had already spun forward. It was nice to beat Tennessee Tech, which enabled Kentucky to snap its first four-game losing streak since 1989-90. The Cats leveled their record at 5-5.
But aside from Patterson, Kentucky started four players (Ramon Harris, Mark Coury, Michael Porter and Stevenson) who averaged a combined 13.8 points this season. That's not going to get it done when the lifting gets decidedly heavier in the Southeastern Conference.
"Those guys really fought hard in the first half," Gillispie said. "But that's not exactly who you want to go into the SEC with.
"I'm real proud and happy with the effort. They tried really hard. They played well. But we need our personnel back. If we do, I think we'll improve very, very, very quickly. If we don't, we're going to continue to struggle some."
Besides losing Crawford and Bradley for a half, the Cats played without Jodie Meeks. The sophomore couldn't get loose in warmups and apparently sustained a muscle injury in his hip, Gillispie said.
Fortunately, the ankle Patterson turned on Monday, which kept him out of the Houston game, healed completely. He didn't leave the Tech game until being replaced by freshman walk-on Dusty Mills with 10.2 seconds left.
Although Patterson took a career-high 14 shots, Gillispie wanted more. The UK coach noted how Patterson's eight first-half shots barely topped the seven taken by Porter and five by freshman A.J. Stewart.
"He probably should have had 16 shots in the first half if we do a better job -- not looking for him -- but being able to deliver the pass," Gillispie said. "You can look all you want. If you can't position yourself properly and get the ball on target on time (his voice trailed off). We've got to improve in all those areas."
When told of Gillispie lamenting the shots Patterson did not get, the big man told reporters, "Yeah, pretty much Coach is never satisfied. You all know that."
After Crawford and Bradley finally entered the game barely three minutes into the second half, Kentucky broke it open. A 20-7 run ensued that gave the Cats a 50-32 lead with 10:36 left.
Bradley finished with 12 points. Crawford contributed five points and a season-high five assists.
Gillispie nodded approvingly at the more competitive spirit. It enabled the Cats to dominate the rebounding 46-25 and limit Tech (4-8) to a season-low 26.4 percent shooting.
But his answer to why Bradley and Crawford fueled the breakout spoke volumes about what Kentucky needs moving forward.
"They're really good players," Gillispie said, "and they're experienced. We need them out there."
Although he didn't mention Meeks and the still recovering Derrick Japser by name, Gillispie might as well have meant them, too, when he added, "We need them to play the best they can play for us to have the best chance of victory."