Cats’ gritty effort not enough

KNOXVILLE — Without Patrick Patterson, much energy left and supposedly much of a chance against the top-ranked team in the nation, the UK men’s basketball team nearly pulled it off yesterday.

With only four ticks left on the clock, senior guard Joe Crawford had a 3-point attempt from the right corner that would have tied the game. But Crawford’s shot clanked off the back of the rim, and sophomore forward Ramon Harris couldn’t get another shot off before time expired. The Cats had come that close to toppling No. 1 Tennessee, losing 63-60 in front of 21,628 fans at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville.

“Four points away,” sophomore forward Perry Stevenson said of the possible upset. “Only four points away.”

Playing without freshman star Patrick Patterson for the first time since learning of his season-ending injury — UK announced Friday that Patterson has a stress fracture in his left ankle and will miss six to eight weeks — the Cats almost knocked off the nation’s top-ranked team.

UK rode a wave of emotion, winding the shot clock down nearly every possession while consistently hitting big shots down the stretch. The Cats got gritty performances from nearly every player on the court, with Stevenson (13 points, 14 rebounds), Harris (12 points) and senior guard Ramel Bradley (17 points) leading the way.

“You can never replace what Patrick did,” Stevenson said. “You just have to try harder.”

After trailing for the first 26 minutes of the game, the Cats took their first lead on an old-fashioned 3-pointer from Harris. The sophomore guard was fouled while hitting a jumper near the free-throw line and then made the ensuing free throw to put the Cats up


The two teams traded baskets from then until the final buzzer, but the Cats (16-11, 10-4 Southeastern Conference) became turnover-prone down the stretch, leading to seven straight points from the Vols (26-3, 12-2 SEC). Ultimately, it was too much for UK to overcome in the final seconds.

“We looked at this game like it was the championship game (for the SEC),” said Crawford, who chipped in nine points while playing through foul trouble for most of the game. “We put ourselves in a position to win; we just didn’t pull out the victory.”

The loss keeps the Cats in second place in the SEC East, a position head coach Billy Gillispie said his team wasn’t looking forward to. If the Cats had won, they would have been in first place in the SEC East.

“We didn’t come in here looking to be in second place,” Gillispie said. “We came here to win.”

In the second half, the Cats came out attacking against the Vols, forcing Tennessee to play a half-court game. But while the Cats pulled within two points early, Crawford picked up his fourth foul just four minutes into the half. With Crawford joining Patterson and injured sophomore guard Jodie Meeks on the bench, the Cats attacked the low post with Stevenson and Harris, who Crawford said played the best game of his UK career.

“I just wanted to be aggressive,” Harris said. “Coach was saying I had been passive, and I just wanted to not make mistakes while being aggressive. And I just thought I couldn’t be passive today. I can’t just be an extra body out there.”

Even without Patterson, the Cats tried to establish a post presence from sophomore forward Mark Coury and Stevenson. But both Coury and Stevenson struggled early to produce the offensive low-post game Patterson provides, with both accounting for only three points in the first half.

Even after Tennessee stormed out to a 20-5 first-half lead, UK battled back late in the half. Led by Harris, the Cats struck back with a mixed attack, using 3-pointers and slashing layups and jumpers in the lane to pull within seven points at halftime.

But the Cats couldn’t pull it off in the final minutes of the game and fell for just the second time in the last 11 games, putting the Cats’ NCAA Tournament hopes squarely on the bubble. Without Patterson, UK’s automatic tourney bid looks as shaky as ever.

Still, the Cats felt they sent a message to those who think UK shouldn’t be in the tournament without its freshman star.

“It says that we’re improved,” Jasper said. “We’re coming together every game. We’re uniting.”