Cats are learning to win down the stretch

Over the course of the two games the Wildcats have played in the NIT they are showing themselves to be a much tougher breed of Cat than the one that closed out the SEC season by being kicked around in close games. They've made plays during crunch time they didn't make during the last two-thirds of SEC play and into the SEC tourney. These players are in no rush to see their season come to an end.

The Kentucky Wildcats have exhibited the ability to win the close game in the NIT, something which eluded them throughout the regular season. During the regular season and in the SEC Tournament loss to LSU the Wildcats often found themselves in position to win games late, but the team would fail to grasp the brass ring which would lead them to victory through unforced turnovers, ill-timed defensive lapses and lack of clutch plays.

Thus far in the NIT there has been a different breed of Cats on the floor.

In round one versus UNLV we saw what looked like a classic come from ahead loss, a sight way too familiar to UK fans over the last four seasons.

When the ball is stolen from Meeks with 4:17 to go, which leads to a Joe Darger three for UNLV the Runnin' Rebs pull to within three, many Cat fans likely thought, "Here we go again."

When the Cat fans expected a turnover or a poor shot to lead to a tied game, and everything rolling down hill from there they had to be pleasantly surprised by the events they witnessed. Tre'Von Willis fouls Perry Stevenson, who hit one of two. Oscar Bellfield then turns the ball over, which leads to a Jodie Meeks jumper in the paint. Another UNLV turnover gives the Cats back the ball, and Darius Miller misses a three, but a Patterson rebound keeps UK in possession of the ball. Later in the possession Jodie Meeks is fouled and sinks both shots. The charity tosses puts the Cats up 65-57. .

In possession of the ball UNLV's Rene Rougeau misses a layup, then fouls Meeks, who hits both freebies. Willis misses a three for UNLV, and Miller claims the board. Stevenson is fouled, and hits one of two. UNLV has possession for two seconds when Bellfield coughs the ball up to Meeks, and Patterson puts the exclamation mark on a 10-0 scoring run with a dunk off a feed from Miller. The Cats led 70-57 with 30 seconds remaining. With 17 seconds remaining UNLV's Rougeau breaks the drought with a three, too little, way too late.

With the ball in his hands Meeks runs out the clock and the Cats had accomplished something they had not done since the dead of winter, they had won a game by executing down the stretch. Over the last four minutes plus of the game the Cats had no turnovers, and gathered in every rebound, and had made defensive plays that led to victory. This Kentucky team had accomplished what we once took for granted, they had taken a slender 60-57 lead and extended it down the stretch and won, 70-60.

Fast forward to the Creighton game played on Monday night. The Wildcats are definitely on enemy turf, and the Creighton crowd if going nuts. The game is very tight throughout. In the first half Patterson is in foul trouble early, Meeks is stymied by the Creighton defense, yet the Cats find themselves down by a basket 33-31 at the intermission. .

Late in the second half the Cats find themselves tied at 56-56 following a Patterson dunk, off a feed from Ramon Harris. The tie lasts all of 22 seconds as Booker Woodfox nails a three to give Creighton back the lead. The crowd in Omaha is going wild, and it is loud, very loud.

With possession and the ball with a chance to pull within one or tie the game with a three, Jodie Meeks works his way to the wing; he is as open as he has been since pregame warm-ups. Meeks, who hadn't been that open in a game since playing UT last, missed the three to tie. Justin Carter gobbled up the miss like Mel Turpin attacked a Big Mac a quarter century ago.

Creighton works a little time off the clock, and Kenny Lawson, Jr. breaks free for a layup, the Wildcat nation groans in unison as they foresee their Cats going down by five. The long arm of the law, aka Patrick Patterson, performs as judge, jury and executioner sentencing the ball to go nowhere near the cylinder with a swat of a big paw that seems to come from nowhere. Patterson then grabs the loose ball with a vengeance.

The Cats call a 30 second time out when the Creighton defense fails to bend. Perry Stevenson must have been in the restroom when UK coach Billie Gillispie drew up the play he wanted his team to run, because Stevenson turns the ball over, and Creighton once again has the three point lead and the ball. Stevenson obviously thought if the turnover didn't make his coach angry then sending Creighton to the line to extend the lead to five points would surely raise his ire, as that is exactly what the long thin Louisiana native did when he fouled P'Allen Stinnett.

In Omaha you can hear the crunching sound of remotes being viciously gripped in the hands of fans all over the state of Kentucky, in preparation of hurling the remote, not to mention a few epithets, at their expensive big screen HDTVs if the Stinnett puts the Cats down by two scores. Stinnett takes aim at the first free throw, and calmly lays a brick, seconds later he is a bit less calm, and clangs the charity shot off the front of the rim. Patrick Patterson claims the rebound; there would be no offensive putback for Creighton as the Cat fans had all too often seen in similar situations this season.

You can now hear a moan in Omaha coming from the east, as Stinnett's misses, and Patterson's subsequent rebound, cost retailers across the state of Kentucky several thousands of dollars in big screen TV sales.

On the offensive the Kentucky's Stevenson shoots to pull the Cats to within a single point, he misses. Patterson gathers in the offensive board, then scores on a layup to pull the Cats to within one.

Kentucky's Miller fouls Stinnett, who is coming off two badly missed attempts on Creighton's previous possession. Stinnett looks like a different shooter as he calmly sinks the first free throw; UK fans across the Bluegrass State are convinced he will no nail the second. Stinnett returns to form, and blows a chance to push the Creighton lead back to three points. Once again a blue clad jersey, this one belonging to Jodie Meeks, denies Creighton an offensive rebound opportunity as he claims the ball for the Wildcats.

On the offensive end Patterson makes a move to the basket and the collapsing Creighton defense is whistled for the foul. The official goes to the scorers tables and signals that the foul is on 1-2, as the signal is made Altman is furious. Number 12 is Josh Dotzler, it is his fifth foul, and he must now watch the remainder of the game from the bench.

Dotzler had not scored a single point during the game, but he had been sharing a jersey with Jodie Meeks for most of the game, and had held the high scoring Cat in check.

Patterson, who had not attempted a free throw all game coolly sinks both attempts to knot the game at 60 with 2:39 remaining. "There remains plenty of time for a Kentucky meltdown," UK fans thought, as they once again nervously gripped their remotes.

Creighton coach Dana Altman calls for a 30 second time out shortly into the possession. Kentucky's Gillispie takes the opportunity to sub in Ramon Harris to bolster the Wildcat defense.

With the Cats on defense it appears they are going to hold Creighton without a shot, then at the last possible moment Stinnett finds Lawson for a dunk. As players for both teams turn to head up the floor the whistle blows. Gillispie looks on in disbelief at the lateness of the whistle on what was at most a ticky-tack foul by Miller. Lawson sinks the charity toss. Creighton now leads by three, and only 1:25 remains.

Six seconds after inbounding the ball Meeks comes up with a steal. The Wildcats run their offense, getting Miller wide open for the three, a shot he has been making with great regularity. Miller's shot hits the back of the iron, and bounds over the goal and out of bounds. Kentucky fans watching at home stir nervously in their chairs and on their coaches, and grip the remote a little tighter.

Porter checks into the game to aid the Wildcat offense against the Creighton pressure defense. Meeks works his way free, and drives to the basket for the layup, finding the going much easier no longer sharing his jersey with Dotzler. The Cats now trail by a single point,

In Kentucky the grip on the remotes loosen ever so slightly.

UK fans sit upright as Porter, yes, Porter, steals the ball from Stinnett giving UK possession.

Justin Carter steals the ball, and is promptly fouled by Meeks, saving what surely looked like a wide open dunk or layup for Creighton.

In Kentucky the grip tightens on the remotes, and knuckles begin changing color from the pressure being exerted.

The foul, Kentucky's tenth of the half, gives Creighton two charity tosses to extend the lead to two or to three. The intense look on Patterson's face told the tale, the ball was going to be his from the moment it bounced off the rim, and his two handed rebound confirmed the inevitable.

Down by one the Cats run clock, Gillispie doesn't like what he sees not developing and calls a thirty. Creighton knows the ball is going to Meeks or Patterson, Kentucky's bread and butter. Meeks pops free on the inbounds play and receives the ball easily. A quick dribble drive and Meeks is in midair, adjusting and sliding past Carter, who is frantically trying to get in position for a charge. Meeks hits the shot just as the whistle blows, eyes turn toward the baseline official as he signals that the basket is good, and blocking has been called on Carter. Meeks extends the UK lead to two on the free throw.

Gillispie subs in Harris for the added defense.

Creighton has one more crack, with ten seconds remaining. They quickly get the ball to midcourt and call the time out. After the time out they can't get the ball in against the Kentucky defense, and call another. Altman designs a backscreen on the weakside of the floor to free Woodfox, who has a very quick release. Creighton runs the play to perfection, and gets the ball to the Woodfox, hearts across the Bluegrass skip a beat as they fear the worst; however, Kentucky is expecting the play and an outstretched Miller contests the shot and forces Woodfox to adjust his shot. It is long and off center. Meeks corrals the rebound, there will be no game tying putback, no backtip for an open three. Meeks dribbles twice, avoiding traffic, and the horn sounds to signal the end of the game. A second consecutive game in which the Wildcats imposed their will on an opponent and came away victorious as a result.

This was the type of game the Wildcats had been losing since January, when a different color of bird, the Cardinals, nipped the Cats on a long three to win the game.

Kentucky fans across the state relax their hold on the remote, lean back and smile. This was the type of game the Wildcats had been losing since January, when a different color of bird, the Cardinals, nipped the Cats on a long three to win a rivalry game.

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