Patrick Patterson described UK's weekend trip to Las Vegas as a confidence builder. Patterson and his teammates had to erase deficits in two games to claim the championship of the Findlay Toyota Las Vegas Invitational.
The Cats again were plagued by turnovers, committing a season-high 31 against Kansas State in the semifinals, followed by 23 in the championship game against West Virginia.
Despite the troubling trend, the Wildcats found the grit and toughness that their coach has been searching for. Billy Gillispie labeled his team "soft" after watching the Cats fall at home to VMI. His team erased a nine-point deficit in the first half, then held off a furious Kansas State rally to win 74-72, handing the Wildcats their first loss.
Against Bob Huggins' Mountaineers, the Cats failed to score the last 5:17 of the first half and trailed by 10 at halftime. Josh Harrellson keyed a 15-4 Wildcat run in the second half. The sophomore had his first double-double as a Cat -- 12 points and 10 boards.
Both the Manhattan Cats and the Mountaineers are big and athletic, if not physical. Kentucky's ability to match those qualities should serve Gillispie's troops well as the schedule toughens, with the likes of Miami, Louisville and the rugged SEC looming on the horizon. Gillispie described them as "two ugly wins," but I guarantee you, he'll take them, given the growth shown by his teams in some areas.
Jodie Meeks was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. His 37-point outburst against KSU was a thing of beauty. Meeks scored 24 in the first half -- Meeks was in such a zone that everyone in Orleans Arena knew every shot he launched was going in.
By my count, UK's tournament title in Vegas is the first pre-conference tournament title since 1996.
Shocking. That's how I would describe seeing freshman DeAndre Liggins' actions during the second half of the Kansas State game. I was one of just a handful of media types that actually saw the guard refuse to enter the game.
Billy Gillispie was trying to sub for Michael Porter and motioned for Liggins to check in. I'm not great at reading lips, but I could see Liggins tell his coach to not ask him again. "I'm not going in," Liggins could be seen to say.
I was dumbfounded, as was Gillispie. All I could think was "Oh no, not a Stephon Marbury!" "Not Scotty Pippen." "The kid is JUST a freshman!"
Afterward, Gillispie addressed the situation when asked, saying he was surprised. The coach insisted it wasn't a distraction and saluted Liggins for wanting more playing time.
In hindsight, Michael Porter's play in the second half was a key for the Cats. Porter was fearless and played with poise and confidence.
More than a few folks were surprised, when, with more than 11 minutes left in the first half, Gillispie summonsed the guard to enter the game against West Virginia. The UK crowd erupted.
Liggins was spectacular. His stats weren't (4 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 turnovers), but he played 27 minutes and was a calming influence when the Cats made a run to overtake West Virginia's lead. He even connected on a long jumper to give UK a 39-36 lead.
Liggins seemed to enjoy the moment, possibly his proverbial coming out party. He constantly urged on the partisan UK crowd. After the championship trophy was awarded, Liggins grabbed the hardware when the team posed for pictures.
Gillispie, again, downplayed the situation, saying his team decided to allow the freshman to play. Gillispie assured the media that any punishment would be meted out during this week's practices.
Big Blue Mist
Kudos to the large number of UK fans who made the trip to Las Vegas. The Orleans Arena seats around 7,500 and only during the UK games did the building appear full.
The Cat fans were loud and boisterous. After all, it WAS Vegas. The timeout music was loud. The public address announcer tried to be hip. There weren't vendors walking the aisles, selling popcorn or cotton candy. Instead, the arena employees scantily-clad servers.
But the Big Blue faithful did their part. So, hats off to them.
Those are the highlights... Stay tuned.