To quote a certain presidential candidate, this one was yuge!
For a variety of reasons:
â€¢ South Carolina had been playing great ball and was undefeated at home.
â€¢ It was on the road again for Kentucky â€“ a loud, unfriendly capacity crowd.
â€¢ Carolina plays that kind of muscle game that so often unsettles the Wildcats if the game is being called a certain way.
â€¢ The game was being called a certain way.
Which leads to the last of the reasons this game meant so much:
â€¢ John Calipari was tossed just two minutes into the game, complaining about a call made at that end and not made at this end.
So how would the young Cats respond?
Sometimes a coach invites a technical to fire up his team. But that couldnâ€™t have been on Calipariâ€™s mind so early in the game. So if the team did get inspired, fired up, determined when it saw its coach leaving the court â€“ buttoning his suit coat over an untucked shirt tail (classy move!) â€“ it was largely because of one wise old head.
Not talking about Kenny Payne, John Robic or Tony Barbee, who pooled their collective experiences playing and coaching for Cal to try keeping everything under control. Iâ€™m talking about Tyler Ulis, who once again refused to let his team unravel.
Frank Martin, Carolinaâ€™s coach, noted that Ulis was still barking out directions late into the game, â€œwhen we were down by 56 or something.â€
Payne said after the game that Ulis is an extension of Calipariâ€™s mind on the floor. A lot less excitable, though. Coolis Ulis called his crew together more than once to instruct, calm down, coach and criticize. He controlled the ball, notching 12 assists and just one turnover. And when he needed to, he also dropped 27 points.
Even as the whistles began piling up â€“ four each against Derek Willis, Skal Labissiere and Isaac Humphries â€“ Ulis always had an answer down at the other end. As ESPNâ€™s Kara Lawson said at one point, Ulis does not give up his dribble or relinquish the ball meaninglessly.
Midway into the second half, Kentucky leading by about 30, Ulis threw up an airball on a three-point attempt. And the capacity Carolina crowd began that annoying â€œairball … airball …â€ chant whenever he touched the ball. I get their frustration, coming in here tasting blood, looking to knock off the Big Dogs â€“ er, Cats. But who exactly did they think they were rattling with that chant?
Ulis is special precisely because of his exceptional on-court demeanor, his focus, his intensity. Doubt he even heard the chant, but if he did it probably made him only more determined to drive the dagger deeper into the Gamecocks crowd.
Iâ€™m glad he had that game on national TV, Iâ€™m glad that Lawson raved about him during the telecast and glad that Jason Williams insisted, after the game, that Ulis has to be included in the National Player of the Year conversation. Going forward in Kentucky annals, I think it will be Tyler Ulis â€“ not John Wall or Brandon Knight or Andrew Harrison â€“ who will be the prototype for a Calipari-era point guard at UK.
The guy is averaging nearly eight assists per game in the SEC in addition to 19.4 points.
Letâ€™s not overlook his running buddy, Jamal Murray, who scored 26, repeatedly ripping Carolinaâ€™s heart out when the game was still close, including a just-amazing driving dunk. Not that it was close for very long. When Cal went out, Kentucky had built a 5-2 lead on a Willis three and a Murray layup. It probably didnâ€™t hurt that Carolinaâ€™s Michael Carrera, a real roughneck bordering on dirty, missed three of the four technical free throws.
But Carolina led 10-9 four minutes later. And then it was 25-16, UK â€“ a 16-6 run â€“ and the Cats never did look back.
A big shout out, of course, for Marcus Lee, who had a scoring-rebounding double-double and picked up only two fouls in a game that was called like this one was. With a front court depleted by injuries and fouls, Lee needed to stay on the court. He did.
And now itâ€™s back to Rupp and Tennessee. Many are saying that Kentuckyâ€™s return to NCAA shape was battered by the meltdown in Knoxville, blowing a 21-point lead. So revenge for that one could be another notch on the belt for Ulis, Murray & Co.
No truth to the rumor that Calipari will be watching from home that night. VT