- Saturday, December 16 2006 -
Kentucky - 61 (Head Coach: Orlando Smith) - [Unranked]
Louisville - 49 (Head Coach: Rick Pitino) - [Unranked]
Halftime Score: Kentucky 27, Louisville 24
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|Indiana 59 - 54|||||Santa Clara 74 - 60|
Game Writeup - Written by Matt May; Courtesy of The Cats Pause, (All Rights Reserved)
Unlikely heroes spur UK to huge win
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Randolph Morris trudged to the bench in foul trouble before ever breaking a sweat, presumably taking Kentucky's chances of knocking off rival Louisville for the third consecutive time with him just four minutes into the game.
Without its best player for long stretches of its biggest game to date and getting virtually nothing from two other veteran starters, UK turned to a trio of unlikely heroes to claim a 61-49 victory that solidified bragging rights for another year. In what has become one of the few staples of this unpredictable backyard brawl, the Cats (7-3) used the contributions of three unheralded bench players to silence a crowd of 20,042 at Freedom Hall.
Jodie Meeks was officially introduced as UK's newest folk hero after exploding for 18 points in a game where scoring was often as difficult as finding a parking spot at the mall during the holiday season. Joining him at the head of the unlikely star table were seniors Lukasz Obrzut and Sheray Thomas, two players who have been lightning rods for criticism from a frustrated fan base. The trio combined for 27 points, 13 rebounds and numerous clutch plays down the stretch.
"I'd be a little nervous," UK guard Ramel Bradley said when asked if UK could win without Morris' presence. "But those guys came in and contributed a lot. They played great for us. It shows we don't just have to go to Randolph (to win)."
All the pregame chatter centered on Morris' play against what promised to be aggressive double teams from Louisville but the storyline quickly fizzled when the Cats' 6-foot-10 center collected his first foul on the Cardinals' second possession and added a second personal at the 15:40 mark, sitting him down for the rest of the half. Another quick foul coming out of halftime sent Morris to the bench until 11:18 remained in the game.
Needing someone -- anyone -- to step forward in the absence of Morris and the struggles of Joe Crawford and Bobby Perry, UK coach Tubby Smith turned to Meeks, Obrzut and freshman point guard Michael Porter. The Cats quickly turned a 16-9 deficit into a 27-24 halftime lead on the strength of 21 bench points, effectively surviving without much help from its veterans.
"We got some outstanding play from people we needed to have (perform)," Smith said. "Jodie Meek was big knocking down threes. Lukasz and Sheray, you can't say enough about those two young men."
While Louisville was laying enough bricks to build Coach Rick Pitino another palatial estate, Meeks turned the game on its ear with an explosive shooting barrage. After the Cardinals had turned a 36-29 deficit into a 41-40 lead while UK struggled to get into sync, Meeks entered the game and began his legend. The 6-foot-5 guard swished a three from the corner off an inbound pass to give UK the lead for good at 43-41 then added another triple from the left wing (with help from a crushing screen by Obrzut) and cashed three free throws moments later to push the UK edge to 49-41 with 6:36 remaining.
"We all knew Jodie can shoot the ball," Bradley said. "He was unconscious. Lights out. When you're hot you keep shooting. I'm happy for him."
Even Pitino grudgingly tipped his cap to Meeks' breakout performance.
"He's a very good freshman," Pitino said. "We made a faux paus (on the inbound). We were supposed to be in a zone and one guy played man and lost his guy. That was a bad three.
"I'll tell you something though, freshmen are freshmen. They are contributors who are capable of having some good nights."
Even with Meeks' heroics UK needed another devastating defensive effort to keep the Cardinals at bay. The Cats forced Louisville into a 27 percent shooting effort, the fourth time in the last five games UK has held its opponent under 32 percent from the field. The 49 points Louisville scored were even 10 fewer than the Cardinals' football team put up on UK in September. It was the lowest point total for a Pitino-coached team since the Cards scored 46 against TCU in 2004.
"It's kind of a scary thought but that was the best we've run our offense all year," Pitino said. "Those were the most open shots we've had. Obviously we are not a good shooting team."
When it mattered most UK was at its best defensively, holding the Cards to just two field goals and eight points over the final 10:43 of the game. When Louisville cut the lead to 51-47 with 3:11 minutes remaining Meeks forced a turnover that led to a free throw by Crawford, then Thomas blocked Edgar Sosa's drive and Bradley saved the loose ball back to Thomas who fed Crawford for a runout dunk to effectively seal the game.
"We pride ourselves on defense," Thomas said. "At the end of the game we got big stops. We made something happen."
Even without its best player.
Jodie Meeks (#20) shoots over U of L's Brad Gianiny (#12)
Derrick Jasper (#5) slams after a steal in the first half
Perry Stevenson dunks