Basketball Cats need to sustain courage it will take to win SEC

More than 700 miles separated the O’Connell Center in Gainesville, Florida, and the home team dugout at Cliff Hagan Stadium in Lexington, where Gary Henderson said this Saturday morning:

“We need to see if we can play with some courage and eliminate self pity.”

The UK baseball coach was talking about his team, which the night before had blown a ninth-inning lead for the first time in 98 games, losing to Ball State 10-8 in 10 innings. It was one of those “shoulda won” games that are extremely difficult to recover. It takes an upset of a powerhouse - never easy, no matter what the sport.

In a little more than an hour, the basketball Wildcats would tip things off with a powerhouse, and you know how that played out. The final score said blowout. So did the first 22 minutes and 29 seconds. That’s how long the top-ranked team in the country ripped and ran and battered the young Wildcats.

But then something interesting happened. The visitors began to play as though the rest of Henderson’s words were tattooed on their foreheads.

“The game rewards courage,” Henderson said, “the game rewards aggressiveness; the game will absolutely punish self-doubt and self-pity.”

Again, the subject was baseball but it could have been chess, much less basketball. Play like a weakling and your opponent will treat you like one.

John Calipari has talked for the past two weeks about his team’s missing “mojo,” almost as though he’s trying to drag Kentucky back to the performance level it showed before its late-season swoon through sheer force of his will.

He keeps looking for the UK team that ground out a tough road victory over Missouri. And he’d love to see the squad that three days later hammered Ole Miss. After that came two road wins, one at Auburn, the other at Mississippi State. Neither was exactly a work of basketball art, but nobody sniffs at road wins in the SEC.

Even the Kentucky that lost to Florida in Rupp Arena will do right now. That team led by seven points with 11 minutes left and still was even-steven with the Gators after 34 minutes, only to see the senior-laden club pull away for the victory.

But there would be no self-pity after that loss; at least, it didn’t appear during another road victory, this one in Oxford, Miss.

It was after that when the Big Blue swagger began to disintegrate. LSU came into Rupp Arena and roughed up the Wildcats, who were rescued in overtime by Julius Randle’s putback. The Arkansas and South Carolina games were disasters and the effort in the victory over Alabama was just good enough.

So looking back on the run Florida they made in Gainesville, when the Wildcats fell behind by 22, it was easy to relate to Henderson’s words: “The game will absolutely punish self-doubt.”

But then a funny thing happened: The Cats found their courage. And the game rewarded them.

They began hitting shots and making stops. Randle cut through the low post like a buzz saw. Willie Cauley-Stein flashed the form on both ends of the floor that had him pegged last year as a potential first-round draft pick. And Kentucky’s perimeter players were smart enough to see the advantage the Cats had in the paint, eschewing jumpers and futile flings at the rim; instead, feeding the bigs.

The 15-0 run, considering the circumstances, might have been the best 5:07 Kentucky has played all year.

Unfortunately, the hole was too deep and Florida was just too good. The veteran Gators are pretty courageous themselves, and seem to suffer very little from self-pity. They’ve shown all season that when things go awry, they know just what to do.

So by the final score, it was another ugly loss. But as the young Wildcats head into post-season play, they know what it feels like now to reach down, WAY down, and pull out a memorable run, however brief.

It didn’t last long enough in Gainesville. Maybe they can make it last in Atlanta.

(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)


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