The Loss that Didn’t Matter

QB Stephen Johnson rushed for -5 yards versus Georgia. He passed for 103 yards.

QB Stephen Johnson rushed for -5 yards versus Georgia. He passed for 103 yards.

At one point Saturday afternoon, I wondered if the Kentucky players were sitting around like me – eating a pizza and watching Florida lose to Arkansas.

Suddenly the Georgia game – which everyone had said meant absolutely nothing to the Wildcats – meant something. If Kentucky beat Georgia, the Cats would be in first place in the SEC East.

Maybe only statistically. Maybe only temporarily. But for however long, Kentucky would be on top, same as Alabama on the Western side.

It wasn’t to be, of course. And, watching the game unfold, you never felt it would be. This is still a Kentucky team not quite ready for the bright lights – a team that ran out of feet to shoot itself in.

A team once again dropping the important pass. A team once again committing that killer penalty. A team making the most egregious kinds of turnovers at the worst time. A team so lacking in offensive balance that as you’re screaming at the TV for a run, some pass is called along the sidelines into double coverage. And when it looks like a pass is needed to move the chains, another Wildcat run into the crowd by a brave, willing freshman who just had to be gassed.

But in the end, the game didn’t matter. Kentucky sits where everybody hoped it would be and where nobody thought it would be during two early September weekends: about to become bowl-eligible.

That was the target from the time camp opened in August. Competing for an SEC divisional title will come. This year is about finally locking the bowl gremlin in the attic and getting the magical sixth win.

And so it will be, unless fate is really a grim trickster, a streetcorner three-card-monte hustler who placed Austin Peay on Kentucky’s schedule as the ultimate bait-and-switch. The Governors from Clarksville, Tennessee, 0-7, are the sixth win on UK’s schedule, the one the Cats could never quite grab hold of the last two years.

Yes, there’s also Tennessee and Louisville, two teams that bring enough emotion into the contest that there might be an “anything-can-happen” element going on.

But I feel that Kentucky has accomplished already what it hoped to accomplish this fall. Losing to Georgia didn’t derail the train.

Winging from Buffalo?

So who is this Canisius College that comes into Kentucky’s gym on Sunday?

Way back in the last century, I started my professional career in Buffalo. Winter is long there, as you might have heard. But winter is not just for hockey in Buffalo. Basketball is big too. Christian Laettner – perhaps the name’s familiar – is from Buffalo. When his Duke team played there in 1991, it drew a record attendance.

But let me make this clear: Duke is not Buffalo, in pretty much any way you can think of. In the dead of a Buffalo winter, Duke might just as well be the guy behind the bar at Bilski’s Tavern. Buffalo basketball revolves around three local Western New York colleges, far from Tobacco Road, that compete ferociously on the basketball court. The “Little Three.”

St. Bonaventure is in Olean, New York, about 75 miles south of Buffalo. It has been in some NCAA tourneys. Back then, its headline player was Bob Lanier. Niagara College is in Niagara Falls, New York, about 20 miles north of Buffalo. Back then, its headline player was Calvin Murphy.

Sitting centrally within Buffalo’s city limits is Canisius College. It had no Lanier or Murphy, but it stuck its chin right into the scrum nonetheless. And it handled itself pretty well. In February that season, a player named Andy Anderson scored 46 points against LaSalle. LaSalle once won a national title.

It played its home games at the old Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. And visiting teams that came in – schools like Syracuse, St. John’s, Providence – knew the Golden Griffins would give them a battle. Often, the local referees would give them a battle as well.

Its big fight every year was against St. Bonaventure – “Bona” in the local idiom. The Jesuits against the Franciscans.

On a cold, snowy, blustery Saturday night in February, in the old Aud smelling of cigarettes, onions, beer and sausages, a Canisius-Bona game might as well have been Kentucky/Louisville.

Everybody you knew in Buffalo had probably gone to one school or the other. So whether you were Bonnie or Griff, Tonawonda or Cheektowaga, Iroquois Beer or Simon Pure, on one winter night in the Aud, snow swirling outside, there was a basketball game going on that wasn’t just basketball – it was redemption or burning forever in hell.

Cat fans can relate. VT