COLUMN: Cats ‘grow up’ in quality road win

KNOXVILLE, Tenn.— At long last, the elusive quality road win the Cats desired came to fruition, but only with a healthy dose of irony.

Just when the Cats finally squeak out a win on the road, the schedule lists no more true road games ahead for the Cats this season.

Sure, the Cats managed to spoil the Tennessee Volunteers’ sendoff of six seniors in a hostile Thompson-Boling Arena and spoil the festivities surrounding the retirement of former Vol great Allan Houston’s No. 20 jersey, but something better than finding a cure for persistent road woes occurred.

It was the improved play based on a change in mindset rather than a change in venue that was the most impressive aspect of UK’s 64-58 win over the Vols.

“What I told them was ‘We grew up today,’” UK head coach John Calipari said. “For the first time this year that we played the way we started and then we changed it: North Carolina we did it, we couldn’t change it. Georgia on the road we did it, we couldn’t change it. Mississippi on the road we did it, we couldn’t change it. Arkansas on the road we did it, we couldn’t change it. Here, we changed.”

Coincidentally, last year UK failed to find the winning formula to win on the road at South Carolina or at Tennessee, the only two Southeastern Conference away venues the Cats managed to exit with victories this season.

But on this trip to the peak of Rocky Top, the Cats discovered some Dalai Lama-esque mountain wisdom about the ways of winning tough games that has escaped them all season: The turnaround.

“We came out in the beginning of the first half lackadaisical, we weren’t ready to play,” UK junior guard Darius Miller said.

To speak to Miller’s point, consider that UK was shooting a paltry 28.6 percent from the floor at halftime, including a combined 2-of-15 from freshman phenoms Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones. The Cats had also burned through four of their five timeouts for the game, a result of the Vols’ relentless attacking on defense as much as it was UK’s lack of fire, or what Calipari calls the “will to win.”

“How in the world were we only down seven?” Calipari asked.

It took only roughly five minutes of the second half for Jones and Knight to make a stretch of plays drastically different from those they made in the first half to turn the seven-point deficit into a seven-point lead.

From that point on, Calipari used his “grind-it-out” offense, UK survived foul trouble, committed only four turnovers and endured for the win—with one timeout to spare.

Theoretically, UK’s road ahead shouldn’t be paved with 21,000-plus orange-clad fans berating players with verbal assaults.

“Everyone knows the NCAA Tournament isn’t played on the road,” Calipari said.

True as that may be, the NCAA Tournament is also not played at home, where the Cats have won 33 consecutive games.

UK’s recent wins over NCAA Tournament-bound Florida and Vanderbilt, and the most-likely NCAA Tournament-bound Vols, have boosted the chance for a better seed while simultaneously boosting the play of a young team experiencing the home stretch of a collegiate season for the first time.

“I just feel the last three games have been real tough teams,” Jones said. “Beating Vandy and Florida at home prepared us for this away game and just playing with high intensity.”

But, this quality road win should be most helpful in UK’s preparations for postseason play, where one loss sends you packing and freshman mistakes can be the undoing of a team, as can lackluster spells of play.

Winning tough games away from home is the only way to practice avoiding such downfalls and the Cats excuted in their last chance to do so.

“This was a big step,” Calipari said.