Saturday's game offers hope and concern

I don't know about you folks but went Rajon Rondo went up for that final three-point shot with under 5 seconds remaining and the Cats down 78-77, time suspended for me for a split second and I flashed back to Rondo's first two three point attempts which occured early in the first half.

I don't know about you folks but went Rajon Rondo went up for that final three-point shot with under 5 seconds remaining and the Cats down 78-77, time suspended for me for a split second and I flashed back to Rondo's first two three point attempts which occured early in the first half. If you recall, his first attempt sailed harmlessly about two feet over the basket and his second attempt barely drew iron on the front of the rim. So my heart sailed up into my throat and stuck as the ball floated to the rim.

My first thought was, "that shot looks like it has a chance." And sure enough, it went through the basket with 1.4 seconds left on the clock to secure a 80-78 win for Kentucky, giving the Cats a modest 2-game winning streak but more importantly avoiding an embarrassing three game losing streak at Rupp, which thankfully has 'still' never happened.

The play did not start out all that well. Rondo had a great deal of difficulty getting open to receive the ball in the first place, and then when he did get the ball he almost fell to the ground. On the play, teammate Joe Crawford said, “I was nervous, but I feel like he can get to the hole. When I saw him go out, I wondered what he was doing. He just broke free and let it loose.”

And let it loose he did. The shot from Rondo was the final act of heroism in a series of extraordinary plays that contributed to the Wildcats win. The excitement started with Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford with 2:47 remaining and the Cats down 74-70. Crawford, chasing down a loose ball, slips, but has the presence to find an open Bradley streaking to the basket with a defender right beside him. Seeming to take a page from his experience on the playgrounds of New York, Bradley faked a pass, causing his defender to head in a different direction. Bradley flipped the ball into the basket without opposition, drawing the Cats to within two at the 1:48 mark.

On the next play Crawford covered a streaking Dwayne Day and drew a hooking foul, turning the ball over to the Cats. Crawford then took the ball to the basket from the top of the key, splitting two defenders for a left handed layup in a tremendous athletic effort. The game was tied at 74 with 1:13 remaining.

After two Scout Carolina free throws, Sparks shocked everyone in Rupp Arena, including Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, by pulling up for a 28-foot jumper with 31 seconds remaining. The ball swished and the Cats were up 77-76. The entire arena seemed to hold its breath as the shot floated to the rim. No one seemed more surprised than Tubby Smith, “I am just glad that it went in. Nobody draws up a shot like that, but he had been shooting the ball well. I tell our guys to take good shots and certainly that was a huge shot. It was a shot where the momentum is shifting in your favor and it was a big game-changer.”

South Carolina again took the lead 78-77 on two free throws with 9.9 seconds remaining, setting the stage for Rondo's final heroics, “He was supposed to come off a screen in the backcourt, and he had a little trouble with the in-bounds pass," Patrick Spark said, "The play was set up where he was supposed to drive and go to the hole, but he did a good job of faking and got free behind the three-point line. It was a great shot.”

Rondo, after receiving the ball, would never give it up, “I knew coming out of the timeout that I wanted to take the shot. I went out and made the play and was glad it went in.”

The game was a close contest for most of the time. But in the second half, South Carolina seemed to take control, building as much as a 12-point lead. That's when Tubby went to small lineup and big plays by Bobby Perry, Ravi Moss, Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford helped the Cats orchestrate a big comeback. “I thought Tubby did a great job at that point of downsizing (his lineup)," said South Carolina coach Dave Odom, "I saw it happen immediately. I was hoping we could use our size, we were bigger than them at the time, to hurt them. I think we could have at the offensive end but defensively they were too quick off the dribble. Rondo, Moss, Bradley and Crawford all took the ball to the lane and eventually got to the rim. It’s a pity we couldn’t guard them and we had to downsize to meet their lineup. When you don’t have a handle on the game it hurts you offensively. If we could have kept scoring or gotten a handle on the game defensively I think we could have won the ball game."

Despite the win, the game still leaves a number of questions unanswered about this team.  There are certainly reasons to feel optimistic but there are also some things to feel concerned about.

Reasons to feel optimistic:

  • The Wildcats shot 56% from the field and hit the 80-point mark for only the second time this season. In four outings prior to this week's win over Georgia, the Cats averaged a mere 55 points per contest.
  • The Cats got solid contributions from Bobby Perry, Ramel Bradley, Rajon Rondo, Patrick Sparks, Randolph Morris and Joe Crawford today. Ravi Moss also had his moments as well. If the Wildcats can continue to get strong play from multiple players, opponents will have a tough time guarding the Cats.
  • The Wildcats executed down the stretch and scored in situations where they most certainly would have come up short for most of this year.
  • Senior Sparks seems to have recovered his groove. Patrick shot 5-8 from the field (4-6 from three-point range) following up a 4-6 (2-3 3 pt) effort against Georgia.
  • The Wildcats had 15 assists today to follow a 17-assist effort against Georgia. During the Cats' three game losing streak, they averaged a mere 8 assists per outing.
  • The Wildcats have a favorable schedule as far as the SEC goes. They play at home against Auburn (0-3 SEC, 8-6) and Arkansas (1-3 SEC, 12-5) and then take on Mississippi State (1-3 SEC, 11-6) before hitting the road to play unbeaten and probably #1 ranked Florida on February 4. The games against Auburn, Arkansas and Mississippi State are games that are winnable for the Cats and could serve as a big momentum builder heading into a very tough game in Gainesville.
  • Two wins with Morris in the lineup might give the Cats the confidence they need to run off a string of wins.

Reasons to worry:

  • For all the excitement of a tight contest, the fact is that the Wildcats struggled mightily once again at home against a rather mediocre team. The 10-8 South Carolina team has not played a top 25 tanked team all season long and were coming off losing three of their last four contests.
  • The Wildcats defense allowed 78 points and the Gamecocks shot 52% from the field, atypical of a Tubby Smith defensive team.
  • The Wildcats seemed most effective offensively when playing with a small lineup, which they used much of the day. But the Cats were outrebounded 30-25 today and often looked overwhelmed defensively in the paint. With the game tied at 74, with under one minute remaining, South Carolina had five shots at the basket before drawing a foul, which resulted in 2 free throws.
  • For all the heroics, a casual observer could make a case that today's win was the result of sheer luck.  Sparks, who had not scored at all in the second half, hits a 28 foot pull-up jumper with 31 seconds remaining to put the Cats up by one. Then, down by one, Rondo dribbles the ball into traffic, does not pass, then rather desparately cans the winning shot. Rondo, it would have been expected, would have normally taken the ball to the basket, shot or dished off. No one was more surprised than South Carolina's Tarence Kinsey, who was covering Rondo on that final shot, “I was just trying to play my hardest tonight. I knew [Rondo] was going to take that shot. He was missing his jump shots early – he airballed his first two three-pointers. He made a nice move and stepped back and hit the three. I thought he was going to drive, I think everyone in the arena thought he was going to dive. I was just trying to make sure he didn’t drive, but he made a great play.” Without those rather unusual plays, the Cats lose three in a row for the first time ever.
  • The Cats, playing at home, took a mere four free throws attempts. It will be extremely tough to beat the likes of Florida if the Cats do not get to the line more.

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