Saturday’s win over Alabama marked the fifth in a row for the Big Blue, a streak that began with a home win over then-No. 5 Tennessee. During the streak, which has propelled Kentucky to second in the SEC East, opponents have been held to just under 39 percent shooting from the field, and under 28 percent from the three-point line. In the previous two games, both losses, Florida and Mississippi State shot close to 46 percent from the field, and 43 percent from beyond the arc.
Clearly, the Cats have finally begun to buy into the defense-at-all-cost mentality that Gillispie preaches. Their games may not be pretty, but a win is a win, and any coach would rather win ugly than lose with style. The Cats have been demonstrating an on-court toughness that wasn’t evident in early season losses to Indiana and North Carolina.
“Where we are now with our competitive spirit, the difference is night and day from the beginning of the season,” said Gillispie prior to the Alabama game. “All I know is we put our hard hat on at the beginning of every day and go to work.”
These Cats don’t get rattled like the Cats of November and December. When the Tide came out firing in the first half, UK stayed patient, not abandoning the game plan. Instead of forcing the action, trying to speed up the pace, gambling for steals, getting careless with the ball; they…just stayed calm and kept playing. Next thing you know, an eight-point first half deficit turned into a one-point halftime lead, and the Cats never trailed again.
They dug in defensively against an Alabama team that had 27 points at the half, yet only mustered nine points in the first twelve minutes of the second half. Of the 25 second-half points the Tide managed, 10 came in the final two minutes, once the outcome was no longer in doubt.
Now, with eight games remaining, UK still has a shot at another 20-win season, something that seemed far-fetched just over a month ago. A team that lost by 16 points to Gardner-Webb at home now can talk about the potential of an NCAA bid and keep a straight face while doing so. Road games at Vandy and Tennessee still loom, but the task no longer seems as daunting, not with the hard-nosed attitude the Cats have been displaying.
Even more importantly, the doubts about Gillispie and his coaching style have quieted in recent weeks, as fans are finally seeing what he envisioned all along. These Cats, short on highlight-reel athletes, aren’t going to be regulars on Sportscenter’s Top 10. But they will get the most out of their talent, and they will defend like their life depends on it for the entire 40 minutes.
In an era when more and more teams are pushing the pace, running and gunning like there’s no tomorrow, hard-nosed, grind-it-out basketball almost seems to have gone the way of the set shot. But at the end of the day, whether you score 90 or 50, only one thing matters, and that’s winning.
Gillispie’s teams at Texas A&M weren’t known for their rim-rattling dunks or behind-the-back passes. They were known for getting in your face and making your life miserable on the court. Every shot contested, every basket earned, and every point hard-fought. That’s what these Cats are striving towards, what they’ve been shooting for the entire season. It took a little while, but it appears they’re finally on the right track to getting there.
It’s going to be a fun journey.