Column: Cats pass nerves test in first road game

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Nerves? What nerves?

For the first time this year, UK played an opponent on its home floor. And UK’s schedulers didn’t ease into that first road game, either. Assembly Hall is one of basketball’s most hostile environments, stemming largely from a fiercely loyal fan base and a creative (if not a bit ruthlessly over the top) student section, even while coach Tom Crean and the Hoosiers are up to their eyebrows in rebuilding.

The Cats played four of their previous nine games away from Rupp Arena, but each was considered to be played at a neutral site. Saturday, nobody knew how UK — remember, six of its 13 players had never played a Division I road game — would respond.

Even after the first half with UK up one, the game would be decided by how the Cats weathered the Indiana attack, from the five on the court and the 17,316 in the seats.

Indeed, that’s how the game was decided. Early in the second half, the Cats ran off 18 straight points. Twelve minutes later, UK won by 17.

Neither Eric Bledsoe nor DeMarcus Cousins, both freshmen, said they were nervous one bit at any juncture Saturday.

“We’re mentally strong,” said Bledsoe, who led UK with 23 points. “The crowd, they were in the game but we couldn’t let them get us out of our game. We just came back play after play.”

True, Indiana is still feeling the aftermath of Kelvin Sampson’s infractions. (So much so, the IU pep band played the ‘80s song “Call Me” before the game and afterward “dedicated” it to Sampson.) The cupboard isn’t as bare as it was last year, but Crean still has a lot to do before his team is back to being among the Big Ten’s elite.

While Indiana was far out-classed in terms of talent, UK will not play a team this year that plays harder than Indiana. Even with the Hoosiers down by 20 with less than 90 seconds left in the game, they were still hounding after loose balls and attacking the basket.

The fact that UK showed such poise under these circumstances might say more about the Cats than a close home win over North Carolina or a “neutral” win over Connecticut in The Garden.

For the first time, this team has played (and won) in as adverse an environment found anywhere in basketball. And that’s something this No. 4 team in the country needed to prove to validate its ranking even further, especially since UK won’t play another road game until Jan. 12 against Florida.

And for a team so reliant upon youngsters, Saturday’s win will build enough confidence to stretch over the next month and eliminate any nervous uncertainty going into that next road game in Gainesville.

“I’m more nervous at home games than I was today,” Cousins said. “I wasn’t nervous at all. I was expecting it.”

Now we know the Cats can play on the road. If they can win with fans yelling obscenities and holding signs saying, “Cal took my SATs,” they can win anywhere. If UK reaches the Elite Eight and plays against, say, Texas in the Houston regional — very possible — they’ll know how to react.

Even if Indiana is still rebuilding — and in a few more Crean recruiting classes, UK-Indiana will again be one of college basketball’s great rivalries — the Cats crossed off one more of the preseason’s looming questions: Will the young team crumble on the road, or will it find ways to win?

So far, we know the Cats won’t fold on the road.

And they won’t be nervous.

James Pennington is a journalism senior. E-mail [email protected]