Mark Story

Meeks the ultimate diversion

Tennessee had spent a month with 54 tattooed into its psyche.

The last time Jodie Meeks saw UT orange, he broke one of the most storied records in Kentucky basketball history, entered himself into the sports consciousness of the nation and all but left Knoxville in ruins.

Its manhood at stake in Saturday's rematch in Rupp Arena, there was no way Tennessee was going to let Meeks hang another half-century-plus outburst on it.

"He pretty much beat them by himself last time," Darius Miller said. "They had to try everything to shut him down."

The good news for Tennessee is that, this time, they cut 40 points off Meeks' scoring output.

The bad news for the Vols was that they exerted so much energy and effort harassing Kentucky's star guard, they completely opened the gates for Meeks' teammates.

First UK-UT game. Meeks 54 points. Kentucky wins by 18.

Second UK-UT game. Meeks 14 points. Kentucky wins by 19.

Said Billy Gillispie of Meeks: "He had another tremendous game today even though the numbers didn't look like that."

Several of the story lines from Kentucky's 77-58 victory over UT on Saturday were obvious.

Patrick Patterson's successful return from his ankle sprain (19 points). The long-awaited Darius Miller breakout game (17 points, 6-for-6 field-goal shooting, six assists). Gillispie's third win in four meetings against Bruce Pearl.

What should not be overlooked, however, was a disciplined, controlled performance by Meeks that was, in its own way, as impressive as have been many of his scoring binges this season.

At times, UT ran a diamond-and-one defense with "the one" face-guarding Meeks all over the floor. Other times it was straight man-to-man, but "the face-guarding Meeks all over the floor" never changed.

The UT defense held Kentucky's star guard to only 14 points on 4-for-14 shooting. On his way to an 0-for-7 day from three-point range, Meeks had at least three treys dip deep into the basket and spin out.

One of the hardest things for a prolific scorer to do when a foe goes out of its way to concentrate its attention on him, is to draw the correct line between not forcing things but not becoming overly passive.

On Saturday in Rupp, Meeks passed that test with aplomb.

"We got a couple of dunks in the first half because he made some really hard cuts," Gillispie said. "Because of how well Jodie's played, they had to help with more than one defender, and we scored.

"He helps everybody. Until today, we just hadn't done that good a job taking advantage of it."

On Saturday, UK's "other players" finally showed the ability to take advantage of the openings Meeks' presence provides.

The big beneficiaries were Miller and point guard Michael Porter, who made three treys.

"We tried to take away Kentucky's prime players, and the other guys went crazy," said UT forward Wayne Chism.

That strategy was the percentage play, said Pearl.

"Defensively, I think you've got to try to make the other guys beat you," the Tennessee coach said. "We did, and they did."

Pearl pointed out that guards Josh Tabb and Bobby Maze provided most of the defensive presence that limited Meeks' scoring. "They did a good job on him," he said.

Yet it came at a cost.

"Interestingly, Bobby Maze and Josh Tabb don't have very good offensive numbers at point guard because they're worn out guarding (Meeks)," Pearl said.

Combined, the two UT guards were 1-for-8 from the floor with no assists.

I'd like to share Meeks' thoughts with you, but, oddly, UK did not make its All-America candidate available for post-game interviews.

Still, on a day when UK's scoring machine wasn't scoring, he still had a big impact on a game Kentucky and its shaky NCAA tourney résumé really needed.

"The way teams are playing him, a lot of us are getting good looks," Porter said. "This was a big win for us because, today, guys started taking advantage of that."

Porter paused, then smiled.

"We don't want him to have to score 40 or 50 points every game for us to have to win," said the UK guard. "That's tough to do."

Tennessee kept Jodie Meeks from 54 redux.

Yet with the way his presence impacted the game, it was still Meeks who laughed last.

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