In the high-pressure world of Kentucky basketball, it is very rare that much attention is paid to the feelings of the actual participants involved in the struggle. Because winning championships and upholding the Kentucky legacy is of such tremendous importance, rarely is time spent reflecting on the status of the individuals themselves. At Kentucky, the name on the front of the jersey is all-consuming and the names on the back and sitting on the sidelines are often glazed over in favor of focusing on the ubiquitous "tradition" of the program. Saturday in Rupp Arena however, things changed a bit. In the most important of rivalries following the most humiliating of defeats, the individuals who make up the Kentucky basketball program provided a series of feel-good stories that for once, outshone the individual performance. No matter where one looked, smiling faces were prevalent and stories of redemption could be found.
Take Lukask Obrzut, the 7 foot center from Poland who has caused more Kentucky fans to shriek in frustration than at any time since the legendary Rob Lock manned the middle. Obrzut came into today's game with lagging confidence and rising frustration, as even his biggest fans wondered if he could turn the corner. However like Rick Pitino's hairline, Woo miraculously reappeared on Saturday, providing a career high in rebounds and much-needed energy and hustle. After the game his teammates showcased the same joy that much of the Kentucky fanbase felt, with Ramel Bradley saying, "there is no one I want to see play better than Woo. He deserves it." After the game, he called his performance a "Christmas gift" for the Kentucky fans and added that he was "living a dream." Getting the opportunity to fly home to his native Poland for the first time in four years and see his family seems like a perfect reward for a young man who deserved his day in the sun.
Or take Sheray Thomas, the Canadian-born forward who was feeling such wrath from many critics (including this one) that one could easily forget he is still recovering from a serious medical surgery. Many critics wondered if the Sheray Thomas of his freshman season would reappear, one with heart, energy and tenacity that made many feel they were viewing the next Chuck Hayes. Saturday for Sheray was proof that staying focused on the Tubby Smith team concept can pay dividends. Thomas found himself open on multiple occasions and was the beneficiary of the spectacular drives and dishes of Rajon Rondo. He continued to mock those who question his shooting by hitting a three pointer and calmly sticking two mid-range jumpers. After the game, he told reporters that "he wanted this bad" and that he was intent on showing those who thought Kentucky had no inside game, that they were too quick to write this group off. As he walked our the door to head home, bystanders could see something that has too often missing for Thomas, a smile on his face.
Or take Joe Crawford, a sleek Sophomore from Michigan who is rapidly approaching a milestone that he would like to forget, the time he made a decision to take a leave of absence from the program. Saturday provided him a chance to prove to everyone that his offensive game has risen as quickly as his maturity, as he hit two jumpers at crucial moments in the game. However his greatest moment of the night was also his most symbolic, when he moved past his defender and produced a rim-rattling dunk on David Padgett that threw the crowd into a frenzy. Rather than say anything to his newly posterized friend, he simply stared, because as Joe said after the game, "he knew what happened." Feelings on Joe's performance were best summed up again by "Smooth" Bradley who said, "when Joe got that dunk, I felt all tingly inside....that has been a long time coming."
Or finally take Tubby Smith, a coach who has won at a greater pace in recent years than any of his counterparts nationwide, but is haunted by the image of the coach who he would face on this day. Smith showcases none of the resentment or gloating emotions of most other big-time coaches, but he would have been forgiven if he had showcased some today. After receiving yet another panic-stricken week of critiques from fans and media who wondered if his strategies needed to be altered, if he would ever be able to recruit or (absurdly) if he was the type of person to forge legal documents, Tubby did what any who follow him should have expected; he acted with class. Smith has now beaten his coaching rival three of the last five games and he pulled this win out at a time when all but the most die-hard had virtually given up on his team. With an air of confidence and humility however he did what he usually does, and deflected the attention. "This team deserves the credit for tonight. Their play was outstanding all the way around."
So while the fanbase for Kentucky once again celebrates the dominating victory over its archrival and tries to create new and unique ways to taunt their Louisville friends, it should also take a moment and recognize the importance of this game to the individuals that actually won it. For behind many of the players and coaches who helped create this win are stories of people who needed this performance even more than the fans. For them, today marks not just a crucial victory against a top 5 team, but also an important step forward from some difficult days recently passed. In a program that usually likes to focus on the team over the individual, today should be a day where a small exception is made and these personal feel-good stories are celebrated.
JONES: A feel good story all the way around
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