It had cameras and TV stars, high-profiled players and Hall of Fame coaches. It had thousands of fans who circled Rupp Arena two hours before tipoff, waiting to pour through the turnstiles.
It had parachutes falling from the ceiling, delivering T-shirts and gift certificates for chicken biscuits. And it had a crackling atmosphere that made it feel like an NCAA Tournament game, only without the dire circumstances facing the loser.
“I don’t know who you play on Tuesday, but that’s actually a big game,” said Kansas coach Bill Self. His team was the loser, 71-63. But he’s right. This was a non-conference game, set smack-dab in the middle of conference play for both teams as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
“Cal will tell his team, this doesn’t really mean anything,” Self went on to say – although he wasn’t diminishing Kentucky’s efforts by any means. He was speaking as a coach whose team right now owns a 14-year streak of winning its conference title.
So no, when it comes to conference standings, it means nothing. But when you think about the same national spotlight that had ESPN Game Day live and in color from Rupp Arena, before a crowd of thousands, seven hours before game time – that’s a different story.
Since being blowed up real good by Duke, the Wildcats have made that loss all but a distant, hazy memory. And they’ve done it by whipping five straight Top 25 opponents: Kansas (9), North Carolina (11), Auburn (16), Mississippi State (22) and Louisville (23). Saturday’s victory only embellishes a glittering resume’ that could begin to outright glow if the Wildcats can figure out a way to beat Tennessee.
Spreading the statistical joy would be one way of doing it, much the way Kentucky did against the Jayhawks. For the first time since John Calipari’s first UK team suited up, the Cats had three players post double-doubles.
PJ Washington had 20 points and 13 rebounds; Keldon Johnson scored 15, with 10 boards, and Reid Travis (nearly immovable under the bucket) pitched in 18 and grabbed 12 rebounds, taking advantage of KU’s lack of depth and thickness inside.
“I feel like me and PJ can play well off each other,” Travis said. “It’s really gonna be a tough guard for other teams, trying to guard us both.”
True enough, and when you mix in five blocked shots by Nick Richards in only nine minutes of action, you can see why Kentucky is becoming a matchup nightmare for almost any team it faces.
The inside heroics were a big reason the Wildcats were down just 33-30 at the break, and why Kentucky was able to survive a night when Tyler Herro finished 0-for-4 from beyond the arc.
Herro scored just six points, but he added five assists and only three turnovers in 38 minutes – not to mention terrific defense against KU sharpshooter Lagerald Vick, who deserves credit for doggedly pursuing Herro and keeping the UK freshman from getting off any long shots in rhythm.
Travis and Washington more than offset a big night for Kansas forward Dedric Lawson, who had a double-double by halftime (11/11) but in the second half added only nine points and four more rebounds to finish with 20 and 15.
Naturally, the Big Blue Nation loved it as Kentucky added to its all-time victory total at the expense of the number two team on the list. A season-high crowd of 24,387 wedged its way into the building and cheered the newly-crowned national champion cheerleading squad, not to mention a half-time appearance by Mark Stoops and a handful of the football Wildcats, who had the Citrus Bowl trophy in tow.
It all made for a sizzling atmosphere, the kind Travis had in mind when he chose Lexington as his destination, once he decided to depart Stanford as a graduate transfer.
“It was awesome,” he said. “This is why I came; Game Day, you see all the faces in the crowd, Big Blue Nation definitely came out. It was rockin’. This is what I looked forward to, to play in big games like this.”
And as March looms, they’re only going to get bigger.