But with their pride being tested, Kentucky's super sophomores answered the call. Joe Crawford posted a career high 23 points to lead all scorers and Ramel Bradley chipped in with 16 to help UK claw their way back into the ball game late in the second half and escape Cincinnati with a 71-63 victory over the Ohio Bobcats.
"Joe shot the ball well in the first half and kept us in the game," coach Tubby Smith said, "He's very capable offensively and was 3-for-3 at the free throw line which was a big key. He put in a lot of minutes, probably the most of his career. He defended well and was playing both ends of the court."
The Bobcats returned 4 starters from last year's squad that took the Florida Gators down to the wire in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and they played like it. Opening the game with an 8-3 run, they showed the Cats that they were not intimidated. Kentucky grabbed their first lead of the game with 15:15 to play in the first half, but Ohio responded, retaking the lead shortly after, and not relinquishing it until Rekalin Sims converted on clutch lay-up/foul shot three-point combo with just 2:20 remaining in the contest.
"I was able to go home for Christmas break and get my mind right," Sims said, "It made me reminisce about how much fun playing basketball is. I just wanted to get back to my game and remember how to shoot the ball."
Ohio shot the ball well throughout the first half and through the beginning of the second half, but as the game clock began to wind down Kentucky locked in on the defensive end and got crucial stops. The Cats held Ohio scoreless for over 6 minutes late in the second half, allowing them to climb back into control of the ballgame. Sims sank the free throw to give Kentucky a one point lead with 2:20 remaining and Kentucky never looked back from there.
"We just played some tough defense and they couldn't make a shot," Sims said, "We realized that we wanted to win this game and that we could win this game. We just clamped down and made it tough for them to make some shots."
Joe Crawford posted 23 points on 8-15 shooting (4-6 from downtown) and snatched 4 big rebounds to lead the Wildcats. His confidence seems to be growing with each and game, and fans are beginning to recognize what all the hype surrounding this young man as a freshman was all about. "I'm getting more comfortable and more confident," said Crawford, "I knew this was going to come. It kept getting better and better. I think the Louisville game really set the tone for me." Ramel Bradley scored 18, which was a career high of his own. Rekalin Sims also added 11. They were the only other Cats in double figures.
As a team, Kentucky shot 43% from the field, converting 27-63 from the field and 8-22 from the three point line. The Wildcats missed all of their first half foul shots, but were able to find the basket with the game on the line, making good on 8 of their final 9.
Ohio shot 47% from the field and 37% from three, but faded near the end of the game. Friday night's game was played in Cincinnati's U.S. Bank Arena likely marked the last home game that Kentucky plays in downtown Cincinnati to reward their fan base in Northern Kentucky. The contract which had them play a game in downtown Cincinnati annually runs out at the end of the season.
Ohio was led by Mychal Green, who scorched the net from beyond the arc. He finished the game with 16 points, but all of them came in the first half. The second half belonged to Jeremy Fears, who at one point scored three consecutive transition baskets after steals from sloppy Kentucky passes. He finished the contest with 14 points.
Kentucky, happy to escape Cincinnati with a win, improves to 9-3 on the year. Ohio proved to be just as good as advertised and the game, which had a March-like feel, could prove to be a good indicator of the type of competition that the Wildcats could be seeing when March comes. Kentucky will be back in Rupp to take on the Central Florida Knights on January 3.
"This win feels real good. It was a close game but we just had to buckle down and stay focused.," said Bradley, "Deep down inside we all knew we had what it takes to come out with a win."
Ohio, who was off to their best start in over a decade, falls to 6-2 on the year. They are set to take on Central Michigan on January 4.