Gillispie deserves to be SEC Coach of the Year

By Jonathan Smith

KNOXVILLE — This was my first thought right after UK beat Ole Miss on Wednesday night: If the Cats were somehow able to beat No. 1 Tennessee on the road Sunday afternoon to move into a first-place tie in the Southeastern Conference, head coach Billy Gillispie should be the unanimous selection for the league’s coach of the year award.

Then Patrick Patterson was lost for the season. Without Patterson, the Cats seemed destined to make an empty trip down to Knoxville.

So the thought process shifted from “How could UK win?” to “How in the world could UK keep it close?”

And then a funny thing happened. Joe Crawford’s jumper with 4:43 left in the game put UK ahead 57-56. UK went from being without its No. 1 player to being up on the No. 1 team in the country. If the Cats could have held on, it would have been a minor miracle.

The miracle didn’t happen yesterday. Tennessee scored the next seven points and escaped with a 63-60 win in the newly renovated Thompson-Boling Arena.

But Gillispie did it. Not only did he manage to keep the Cats in the game, but he put together a game plan that had his team in the lead with less than five minutes in the game.

That should be enough to make him the conference’s top coach this season, but it probably won’t. It will probably go to Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl, who has the conference’s best team, but also the conference’s best talent. Or to Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury, whose team is in first place in the SEC West thanks to the conference’s best player, Jamont Gordon.

This game, combined with the other injuries and setbacks this team has faced this year, showed why Gillispie is the conference’s top coach this season.

UK spotted the Vols a 15-point lead just eight minutes into the game. But the Cats came back.

They did it without much from Crawford, who was forced to the bench with 5:33 to go in the first half after picking up his third foul. He didn’t return.

Then, just 3:06 into the second half, he picked up his fourth foul. He didn’t return until the 7:23 mark.

So how did the Cats do it with no Patterson, little from Crawford and after trailing by 15 points?

They took the shot clock under five seconds on nearly every possession to limit Tennessee’s possessions. They out-rebounded Tennessee 33-31 without Patterson and with three players each playing 40 minutes. They only let Chris Lofton get off two 3-point attempts. And they got career performances from Perry Stevenson (13 points, 14 rebounds, Ramon Harris (12 points, five rebounds) and Derrick Jasper (nine points, eight boards and eight assists).

Those players were good because Gillispie put them in a position to play good. And Gillispie was so good he even predicted how the game would play out.

“Coach predicted the whole game, the whole game plan,” senior guard Ramel Bradley said. “He knew that they were probably going to come out and get a big lead on us and we were just going to have to fight, take it one possession at a time and claw our way back in the basketball game and continue to fight.

“Five minutes left, they were going to tighten up a little bit, and we were going to be in a position to win the basketball game.”

How prophetic. Jasper’s 3-pointer with 1:01 left moved UK to within three. After Ramar Smith missed a free throw with 15 seconds, Crawford had a good look at a game-tying three from the baseline. It went in and out.

After the game, Gillispie was kicking himself.

“I should have called a timeout,” Gillispie said. “That’s my fault.”

Maybe. But everything else he did was just about perfect.