John Clay

Cats will need more than 10 good minutes

John Clay
John Clay

Tuesday night at Rocky Top, 10 good minutes won't be enough.

And that's what Kentucky got Saturday.

Yes, for all the well-deserved back-patting over Ramon Harris' healthy 12 points, over DeAndre Liggins' disruptive defense, over the fact that the Cats overcame a rare off day from their reliable rock, Patrick Patterson, to beat Vanderbilt 70-60, it all boiled down to 10 good minutes against an opponent minus its best player.

That would be A.J. Ogilvy, the 6-foot-11 Australian sitting on the Commodores' bench. The one with the 16.5 points-per-game average, the 7.2 rebounds, the 53.9 percent field-goal percentage, and the bruised heel that kept him in a black-and-gold warm-up from beginning to end.

Yet even then, with Vandy a doughnut, with the Rupp crowd rocking for the start of conference play, the Cats trailed 16-8 early, rallied to take a 31-27 lead by halftime, but messed around early in the second half. The lead was just three points, 34-31, with 16:28 remaining, when all of a sudden the booster rockets ignited.

By the 7:53 mark, the Kentucky lead was 20 points, 57-37, and it was game, set, match.

"We had 10 minutes there where we kind of lost our composure," said Kevin Stal lings, the Vanderbilt coach.

Kentucky had 10 minutes of inspired play, from Liggins' on-the-ball defense — "I think, three straight possessions, DeAndre either got a steal or created a turnover," said teammate Michael Porter — to a flourish of Harris finishes on fast breaks.

"I thought we got a great boost of energy right there," said UK Coach Billy Gillispie.

Then they lost it. With just less than a minute remaining, the visitors had carved the lead all the way down to six.

Thing is, one great boost won't be enough Tuesday, when the Cats travel to Knoxville for a 9 p.m. ESPN tip-off with the Vols.

I know, I know, Tennessee is a high-wire act living on the edge. The Vols take bad shots, are careless with the basketball and don't always perform with a high basketball IQ. They have lost by 16 at Temple, by seven at Kansas and twice to Gonzaga, the second of which came last Wednesday when Bruce Pearl's team blew a 12-point second-half lead and was outscored 16-6 in overtime.

Why, Saturday down in Athens, the Vols were up 12 in the first half, then somehow fell behind by nine in the second half against lowly Georgia before rallying to pull out the 86-77 win.

Once as high as No. 8 in the AP rankings, the Vols were hanging by their fingernails, at No. 25, in last week's USA Today coaches poll.

That's why they'll be fired up Tuesday.

To be sure, the Vols are always fired up when Kentucky comes to town. Good Big Orange team, bad Big Orange team, doesn't matter. It's a given.

Only this Big Orange team will want desperately to prove it's much better than it showed in those two high-profile losses in the past eight days. A win over Kentucky, on national TV, would go a long way toward getting UT back in the national limelight.

"We know they play really good defense, they pressure out, they try to get steals, and turnovers and stuff," Porter said. "It's just a matter of us taking care of the ball, playing smart, playing really sound defense, and rebounding the ball."

And unlike Saturday, Tennessee should have its best player. After being pronounced doubtful because of a bone bruise in his knee, Tyler Smith shed his crutches and scored 24 points and grabbed 11 boards in the win at Georgia.

He'll be ready Tuesday.

So will his UT teammates.

So will the crowd.

Tuesday, 10 good minutes won't get it.