John Clay

NIT win is a blast from the past

John Clay
John Clay

With all the speculation about the future, Kentucky responded by turning back the clock.

Back to when Memorial Coliseum was a rocking and rolling basketball showplace.

Back to when the head coach wore a brown suit with a blue tie.

Back to when an inspired Kentucky registered another basketball victory.

You knew that this rare chance to return to Memorial had a chance to be magical, and that's what it was Tuesday night when the rafters were packed, the crowd was standing, and cheering, and Kentucky's embattled Cats fed off the noise and energy to beat visiting UNLV 70-60.

"Everybody was having fun," said UK center Patrick Patterson.

Yes, it was only the NIT, which is not the NCAA, and which no team wants to play in if it could be playing in the NCAA. But these days, with speculation swirling around the future of head coach Billy Gillispie, and with the program missing its first Big Dance in 17 season, the Cats were in need of an adrenalin boost.

It got it exactly that from a packed crowd announced at 8,327 but that sounded bigger, much louder, and more involved. Indeed, so driven and dedicated was the Memorial Mob, surely it will bring back the debate over whether the Big Blue powers that be should play at least one game a year on the Avenue of Champions.

"In these economic times, not unless they can squeeze 24,000 in here," said Gillispie.

Maybe they could.

"I don't know what time you all got here," the coach told the media, "but it was a great crowd this afternoon."

Indeed, beyond two hours before tipoff, fans were outside the Coliseum, milling around, some chanting. It carried over.

"Oh definitely," said Patterson. "The crowd was a lot more alive and active. I could see the fans standing up pretty much the entire game. I thought that caused us to play with a lot more energy."

It showed. The Cats crashed the boards, dived for loose balls, and got out on Vegas' three-pointers, causing the Rebels to hit just three of 17 from beyond the arc in the first half.

Even the losing coach, UNLV's Lon Kruger said, "I thought the fans were terrific."

The last time the Cats had played a regular-season game in "The House That Rupp Built" was March 8, 1976, when Joe B. Hall's team beat Mississippi State in an epic overtime game before Rupp Arena opened its doors the following winter.

Oh, there had been an exhibition and some annual Blue-White scrimmages, but nothing like this, a real game, with a real survive-and-advance prize on the line.

Thing was, the Cats seemed liberated by the atmosphere. The final month of the regular season, they had so often played tentative and timid, as if afraid a mistake would mean a long hook back to the bench. This night, for most of the night, Gillispie's team played full-out, up-and-down, with a newfound abandon.

Jodie Meeks, he of the season-low eight points in UK's SEC Tournament loss to LSU, scored 19. Patter son scored 16 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Ramon Harris came up big, snatching 10 important boards.

Perry Stevenson nearly sent the throng over the top with a thunder-dunk that began somewhere in the middle of the lane and continued over and through the arms of a resisting Rebel.

The lead grew to 20 points on two different occasions, 50-30 and 52-32, in possibly the Cats' best stretch of the season. But Kruger's club fought back, making three-pointers and taking advantage of opportunities to make it 60-56.

But the Rebels could get no closer. Not on this Memorial memory.

"Kentucky did the things it needed to do," said Kruger.

"Last time they played in this building they got a win," said Meeks, "and we wanted to continue that."

And they did.

The future can wait.