The Wildcats pulled away from the pesky Broncos here Tuesday for a 74-60 win — their fourth straight victory. While the game was not an offensive showcase, the Wildcats did get a 23-point, 13-rebound performance from center Randolph Morris and 26 points combined from four freshmen.
Still, this was another game where it was obvious the fans were not happy, especially when Santa Clara cut the lead to 54-49 with under eight minutes to play.
"It's kind of like a NBA atmosphere here," said Kentucky senior Sheray Thomas. "If you don't win, there is pressure. If you don't win impressively, there is pressure. It's a great place when you are winning the way the fans want. If you are not, it's hard place. It comes with the territory and I can appreciate that." However, the Broncos, who won 16 points over at Pac-10 member Stanford Saturday, didn't see Kentucky as the stumbling, bumbling team that has already frustrated numerous fans. Instead, they felt Kentucky was a quality opponent. "We thought we could win. We missed a lot of open shots, which you can't do on the road. You've got to knock down shots," Santa Clara guard Danny Pariseau, who scored 14 points, said. "You have to believe you can win. But at the same time, Kentucky is a very good team." But didn't the Broncos often seem to be forcing Kentucky to play at a faster pace than the Wildcats — or at least coach Tubby Smith — preferred?
"Every game we want to get easy baskets. Our coaches always preach that," Pariseau said. "At halftime, our coach talked about adjusting our game to where we pushed the ball more because that was something we could take advantage of. They are big and physical. So if we could get easy baskets before their defense got set, we wanted to do that."
Didn't the Broncos also basically shut down UK's offense except for Morris? Take away Morris and UK's other players were a combined 16-for-45 from the field. Ramel Bradley was 4-for-14, Joe Crawford 2-7 and Bobby Perry 0-for-3. Along with Morris, they are supposed to be UK's best scorers and players.
"Our defense did play well," Santa Clara forward Sean Denison said. "Our guards got some steals. We stopped their drives. They got too many offensive rebounds (15), but they didn't do anything to surprise us. We were prepared for their offensive sets and basically knew what they were going to do. We also like to play fast, and that did seem to bother them at times." "We pride ourselves on tough defense. I don't think we let them do a lot of things that they wanted to do," Santa Clark's Mitch Henke said. "Tonight we just didn't do quite enough to stop Morris. If we had, we might have got out of here with the win. He's a great player and he's the one guy we couldn't stop."
What about Kentucky's defense? The Broncos shot just 35.9 percent (23-for-64) from the field. "I actually felt like we got a lot of open shots, maybe more than I expected we would," Henke, who had 17 points on 7-for-13 shooting, said. "It's not like we struggled to get open shots."
"Kentucky is probably a lot more athletic overall than we are," Pariseau said. "But we use our heads. Good players also have to be smart players. They blocked some shots (six) and forced some turnovers (15), but we were able to run our offense and get shots. We just didn't make them."
Santa Clara's players wouldn't say the Wildcats were not as good as they expected. However, they made it clear they were not intimidated or overmatched by UK.
"Kentucky is a good team. We knew they would be good. But we are a good team, too. We came here expecting to win," Denison said. "Playing here was a new experience. I can't really put it into words. But it wasn't intimidating. It was fun, and would have been even more fun if we had won." "Kentucky is right up there with some of the other good teams we have played," Henke said. "However, I think we proved we could play with them. We just couldn't quite grind the win out, but they also couldn't just blow us away." Don't worry. Kentucky won't blow many teams away this year with its offense. No, this is normally going to be a grind-it-out, wear-you-down team that relies on defense and just enough offense to win unless players like Bradley, Crawford and Perry find a way to give Morris consistent help or Smith decides to give his freshmen more minutes to see if they can provide a needed spark.
Or maybe the Cats are doing more good things already than many realize.
"Tubby's team is on the rise. Each game they are playing a little better," Santa Clara coach Dick Davey said. "They are not a bad team at all." Or at least not to Davey and his players.