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Wildcats survive early test against Cleveland State

The guess here is that sometime later this season, perhaps during the NCAA tournament, you’ll have a feeling of déjà vu (assuming you’re a Kentucky fan. If not, welcome to this space, anyway).

Your favorite team just might be struggling. Shots not falling, rebounds not bouncing, defense ineffective. The other team will be playing with the confidence gleaned from building a lead against one of the nation’s elite programs, perhaps a #1 seed. The other guys will feel good about the way their jumpers are falling, how they’re cleaning the glass and how the Wildcats keep missing shot after shot.

If it happens, think back to Cleveland State.

The Vikings strode into Rupp Arena and for 33 minutes, played the Wildcats right out of their Nikes. CSU took a 31-27 halftime lead by working the boards (UK up just 22-20 at the break); by holding the Cats to just 26.9 percent shooting and by forcing seven turnovers, five of which were steals.

And then the Vikings came out and poured it on in the second half, answering every time Kentucky made a slight run. The Cats cut it to two right away, but Cleveland State responded with a quick bucket. Eventually the lead grew to 11, with less than 15 minutes left to play.

“They hit big shots, and they executed sets we were trying to put them in,” said Cleveland State coach Gary Waters. Down the stretch, not so much. “They didn’t get into what we need to get in. They let (the Wildcats) take us out of the game.”

His players, said Waters, were quicker. “When you’re quicker, you can get to a spot faster than the others can,” he said.

But Kentucky had length, and down the stretch, when the Wildcats needed the basketball, they could go get it, especially after one of their own missed shots. The Cats, who outrebounded CSU 42-37, finished with 18 offensive rebounds, using the same formula that helped them claw their way back into the Michigan State game. “They may be the best offensive rebounding team in the country,” Waters said of the Wildcats.

Waters says he counts Spartans coach Tom Izzo among his close friends. “He works hard on rebounding the basketball. That’s one of his identities,” Waters said. “I’m telling you, this team rebounds as good or better as Michigan State.”

Julius Randle had another double-double, 15 points and the same number of rebounds, with nine of his points coming at the free throw line. He spent the evening surrounded by green jerseys – three, four and one media-type swore he saw five Vikings surrounding Randle at one point, plundering the UK paint in a way that would have made Leif Erickson proud.

Randle was vital in the comeback, but no more so than two perimeter players. James Young, the newly-crowned SEC Freshman of the Week, picked up a plaque for his scoring of late, but what he brought the Cats when they needed it the most was effort. Sure, he made some big shots, including a jumper that gave UK a 54-52 lead with 3:22 left to play. It was Kentucky’s first lead since the 2:28 mark in the first half.

Young was 3-of-11 shooting on the night, with just one triple, but it was a big one. After CSU had taken that 11-point lead, John Calipari called timeout. Out of the huddle, Kentucky ran a play that freed Young from beyond the arc, and he drained it, cutting the deficit to eight. The comeback was on.

What Young might be the most proud of were his five rebounds – all of which, it seemed, came when the Cats desperately needed the basketball. “James Young just fought like crazy and came up with balls when we were dead,” Calipari said. “If they got those balls, we would lose. That's why I looked at the other guys and I say, ‘Fight like he's fighting.’ “

“I didn’t want to lose,” Young said. I felt like if we lost then there would be a lot on our shoulders like Michigan State. I just, for whatever reason, did not want to lose and did what I could to help our team win.”

So did Andrew Harrison who, like his twin brother (and the rest of the team, for that matter) struggled early, picking up two early fouls and heading for the bench. But it was Andrew who fed Willie Cauley-Stein for a dunk with five minutes left that cut the deficit to three. And then, after a CSU miss, his old-fashioned three-point play tied the game.

Andrew Harrison fed Young for a long jumper that gave the Cats a two-point lead, but CSU’s Bryn Forbes calmly buried a three that gave the visitors a one-point lead with 3:09 to play.
It would be their last.

After a free throw by Cauley-Stein tied the game, Andrew drove for another layup-and-one with 2:08 to play. The Vikings missed a pair of shots and then Aaron Harrison delivered the dagger – a three-pointer with 1:20 left. The comeback was complete.

“I feel like I was letting my teammates down pretty much, getting those fouls in the first half and not being as aggressive as I should be,” Andrew Harrison said. “This is definitely, hopefully, a turning point.”

We’ll begin to find that out in less than 48 hours, when the Cats take on Eastern Michigan in a Wednesday, pre-holiday matinee. It could be the kind of game that launches Kentucky into a streak of games where the Wildcats get better and better.

But the odds are, another mid-major is bound to jump up and challenge the mighty, mighty Wildcats. If that game seems familiar, just remember Cleveland State.

(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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