John Clay

Cats having too much fun to end the drama now

OMAHA, Neb. — The drama continues.

But let's push that to the side for a minute.

Billy Gillispie's future can wait another day. Let's take the focus off the embattled coach for a minute, off the athletics director, Mitch Barnhart, and the president, Lee Todd, and whatever might or might not happen with the Kentucky coaching job whenever this season might end.

Save it for the final act. And these Cats aren't ready for the final act.

"It's not about me," Gillispie said Monday night.

So let's talk about "them," the players, the ones caught in all the future-talk, the ones who discarded their disappointment of not making the NCAA Tournament, who straightened their backs and charged straight ahead.

"Put our hard hats on," said Patrick Patterson, the sophomore center.

Let's talk about the Cats who stared into the belly of the beast on Monday night, faced a loud, excited, charged-up Creighton crowd in the Qwest Center. The Cats who saw Patterson sit out 15 minutes of the first half with two fouls. The Cats who saw Jodie Meeks sit seven minutes of the second half on a coach's decision.

Yet the same Cats who overcame a three-point deficit with 1:26 remaining to beat the Bluejays 65-63 in the second round of the NIT.

"We want to keep playing basketball," Patterson said.

You believe him.

And them.

Give it up for Perry Stevenson, who contributed a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Give it up for Ramon Harris, who dished out a career-high (and amazing) eight assists. Give it up for Darius Miller, the freshman who popped up off the bench and provided a spark with five first-half points.

And then, of course, don't forget the big two.

You remember Rhythm and Bruise?

Over the final 9:23, Patterson and Meeks combined for 19 of Kentucky's 22 points. Patterson scored eight. Meeks scored 11, including the twist-and-shout drive to the basket, with accompanying foul, at the 10.6-second mark that pushed the Cats in front by a single point. The ensuing Meeks free throw made it two, 65-63.

"It was a good play drawn up, and I got kind of lucky on the shot," the junior said.

But luck is often the by-product of hard work. And, despite the speculation swirling around them, despite the uncertain fate of their head coach, this team has played hard now for two NIT games. There's no denying that.

It played hard in the unique, magical atmosphere of Memorial Coliseum last week in that 10-point win over UNLV. It played hard, if not always well, in the electric atmosphere Monday night here in Omaha, where the home-standing Bluejays can rarely coax a big-time visitor to venture.

"We're having a heck of a time," Gillispie all but blurted. "This was a heck of an atmosphere."

For a second straight day, the coach claimed that his team matured a bit when the "finalization of not making the NCAA Tournament hit." And maybe there's some truth to that.

Patterson joked that the team just doesn't want to return to class. It knew that beating the Bluejays meant a quick trip from Omaha to South Bend — no pit stop in Lexington between — for Wednesday's quarterfinal NIT matchup with Notre Dame.

"We don't want to go back to school," he said.

Stevenson said, "We don't care what anybody else thinks."

Or maybe Meeks got it right when he said, "Anytime you get a chance to put on that Kentucky jersey, you're playing with pride."

The drama continues.

The final act will have to wait.