John Clay

John Clay: Kentucky and Kansas play a regular-season classic

At halftime Saturday night in the Allen Fieldhouse, they held a special ceremony to celebrate a Kansas donor paying $3.8 million to obtain Dr. James Naismith’s original “rules of basketball” so he could return them to Lawrence. The document was showcased in a frame at midcourt.

Had the inventor of the game been there himself on Saturday, he would have both marveled at, and been proud of, what he saw.

Kentucky and Kansas played a classic regular season college basketball game, people, a down-to-the-wire battle between the two winningest programs in the sport. The atmosphere inside the packed Allen Fieldhouse was tremendous and ridiculous, and at times comparable to the inside of a jet engine.

“It was crazy,” said UK senior forward Alex Poythress. “Loudest I’ve been in.”

In the end, Kansas beat Kentucky 90-84 in overtime in the Big 12-SEC Challenge. Kansas guard Wayne Selden scored 33 points as the Jayhawks overcame a night when they struggled at the foul line while the visiting Cats couldn’t overcome fouls and lost rebounds and late turnovers.

“It was a fun game to be a part of,” said the winning coach, Bill Self.

“I’m hacked off because we lost,” said the losing coach, John Calipari.

Cal shouldn’t have been, of course. Playing in a historic gym where Kansas rarely loses — Self is now 201-9 in the house that Phog Allen built — and the decibel readings for crowd noise nearly reached 120, the Cats fought right down to the end and beyond, taking the game into overtime where they lost both players (five fouled out) and gas.

Tyler Ulis made a strong case that the 5-foot-9 point guard is indeed the best point guard in the nation. In the first half, Ulis floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. He made six of eight shots, dished five assists and scored 14 points. He finished with 26, hitting 11 of his 19 shots.

“Ulis was so good,” said Self.

“You can’t win with just one guy,” lamented Calipari, and when Self switched to a diamond-and-two defense in the second half, it seemed to have the desired effect.

First half, Kentucky shot 63 percent and led by just six. Reason? Kansas shot 55.6 percent and held Kentucky to just one offensive rebound. That doesn’t happen, not to a Calipari team, anyway.

Second half, Kansas started driving the ball to the basket and picking up foul after foul. The final count was Kentucky 33 fouls, Kansas 20. The Jayhawks shot 47 free throws on the night, making 30. UK shot 22 and hit 13.

Kentucky fans will see that as home cooking in a very heated environment. Kansas fans will see that as the determined Jayhawks getting the ball to the basket and forcing the Cats to foul to stop drives.

Where Kansas really won the game was on the boards. The Jayhawks won the glass 42-31. Kentucky managed just six offensive rebounds. At the end of regulation, Kansas came up with a pair of offensive rebounds that killed the Cats’ cause. On one play, Ulis seemed to have the ball secured, only to lose it in a collision. The ball ended up with a Jayhawk kicking it to guard Frank Mason, who drilled the three-pointer for a 69-66 lead.

Ulis got knocked down, said Calipari, “But still, (Mason’s) got to hit that shot.”

If this game was a litmus test for Kentucky, a chance to prove it can indeed play with the big boys, the Cats lost the battle but won the war. After the game, out on the concourse, weaving through the crowd on the way to the post-game press conference, one of the few Kentucky fans in attendance telling another, “They’re going in the right direction.”

“It’s losing basketball,” complained Calipari during his post-game press conference. “It’s not winning basketball.”

He’s a coach. A coach is supposed to say those things. A coach is only worried about his team. But what happened Saturday night at Allen Fieldhouse, it was far from losing basketball. It was terrific basketball.

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