If you’re not going to be courtside when a Kentucky player goes on a record-breaking tear, be sure to watch the game with friends, including a couple of ex-Wildcats who know a little something about how to shoot.
This I learned Tuesday night as Jodie Meeks went about burning down the Tennessee Volunteers.
For more than two decades, I made the trek down I-75 to Knoxville, to cover Kentucky at Tennessee basketball games. During my 22 years with WKYT, I made a majority of those jaunts with videographer Steve Moss.
Last year I couldn’t make the trip because I had to fill in for Neil Price on the UK baseball radio network, so I missed one of the most courageous performances in recent history. Minus the injured Patrick Patterson, on the road, facing the nation’s then number two-ranked team, the Wildcats nearly pulled off one of the biggest upsets in school history. I watched on TV, dumbfounded.
On Tuesday, I watched on the tube again, from a local establishment best known for chicken wings (no, not the one with the servers wearing tank tops and Tennessee-orange shorts). The 9 p.m. start time, plus the post-game interviews, ensured a return time of 3:30 a.m. at the earliest. The audible found me posted up at a table for five with my friends – former Wildcats Cameron Mills and Kyle Macy, and fellow sportscasters Ryan Lemond and Neil Price.
Neil, it should be pointed out immediately, had predicted a 15-point Kentucky victory. And that was not just his blue-tinted shades altering his perception. A native of Morristown, Tennessee, Neil had been home for a visit when he dropped in on Thompson-Boling Arena the night the Vols lost to Gonzaga. He pointed out their lack of drive and focus in the halfcourt game, both on offense and defense. It all added up, in his mind, to a double-digit UK win.
I, of course, thought he was nuts.
Tennessee was beatable, it said here, but a lot of things had to go right. But never – EVER – did I envision one of those things being Meeks’ assault on one of the “unbreakable” records in the UK media guide.
As Meeks merrily bombed away from beyond the arc, Cameron started getting antsy. He was alternately cheering Kentucky’s progress and worrying about his own spots in the record book.
Mr. Mills happens to own, along with two national championship rings, two records: best 3-point percentage for a season, and for a career. His concern lay with Meeks’ marksmanship. Would it ultimately eclipse his name from the honor rolls? A few more 10-for-15 nights from behind the 3-point line will answer that question.
Kyle watches games now as a fan, a former player, and an ex-coach. He repeatedly critiqued the Volunteer defense – or lack of same.
As often as not, Meeks faced merely token pressure. Some of that was because of the way he brilliantly ran off screens set by his teammates, who repeatedly found him with passes that stayed in his hands only long enough for him to square up to the basket.
The rest of the time, the Vols were merely waving at Meeks as he rushed to greatness. And when he wasn’t filling the basket, his teammates were.
No, there was no “third scorer.” Heck, there wasn’t even a second Wildcat in double digits. Didn’t have to be. Whenever the Cats needed a big bucket, there was number 23, Jodie Meeks, who, coincidentally, wears the same number as Pete Maravich, who still holds the Southeastern Conference record for most points in a single game (69).
But the Kentucky defense was everything it needed to be, holding Tennessee to 37.9 percent field goal shooting, stripping the Vols of their will to attack. Macy mentioned, more than once, UT’s willingness to abandon plays and settle for ill-advised jump shots.
Neil and I polished off two plates of wings apiece. I shared a small pizza with Cameron, who knocked down a plate of wings as well. Ryan already had eaten, so he stayed with the beverages – switching to Mountain Dew during the second half. He knew our post-game call-in show, which he would host, wouldn’t get off the air until 1 a.m. Veteran move.
Kyle went with wings, too and by the time he ordered a piece of chocolate fudge cake, the Cats were cruising. Meeks hit Patterson with a lob for a dunk that rivaled Kyle’s cake when it came to sweetness. Darius Miller logged minutes when Perry Stevenson fouled out and played with real poise. But it was Meeks who scored nine straight after Tennessee had cut the deficit to seven with five minutes remaining.
As Meeks piled up points, Dan Issel’s single-game record came into view. The Vols rapidly were losing interest in the game, much less playing defense.
Meeks re-wrote the record book – actually, twice. Not only did he break Issel’s mark for single-game scoring with his 54 points, he shattered the mark for most three-pointers made in one game, a record he himself shared with Tony Delk. It had been nine; Meeks did one better.
The Wildcats pulled away, leaving town with an 18-point victory and a dramatic advantage in the SEC. Meeks had his records. Kentucky basketball, at least for the next 12 hours, would be the lead story in college basketball on every network, wire service and internet site.
We waddled out of the restaurant having sampled practically everything on the menu, or so it seemed. Not a bad way to watch a ballgame.
(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 20-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m. ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)