Senior Cats making season defining surges

Finally, Billy Gillispie could grin ear-to-ear at the mention of his two oldest players.

UK had beaten conference rival Tennessee, and it was Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford who led the Cats over the No. 3 Volunteers.

Gillispie spent much of the early season urging his senior guards to become leaders, and finally, the duo had done just that. His praise after the Tennessee game began with Bradley.

“I don’t know if he could’ve ever played a better game,” Gillispie said. “He was outstanding offensively, he was outstanding defensively, he was outstanding leadership-wise, he was outstanding enthusiastic-wise.”

Early in the season, Gillispie told Crawford — whose 16 points per game are ninth in the Southeastern Conference — to focus on improving his defense, and signs of improvement showed during UK’s win over Vanderbilt, when Crawford defended star guard Shan Foster and earned his coach’s praise for his performance.

It continued when Crawford aided Bradley in making Tennessee guard Chris Lofton a non-factor in the second half of that win, when Lofton failed to score a second half point until the 2:19 mark.

Crawford also hit 3-pointers on consecutive UK possessions late in the second half against Tennessee, but it was what happened after those baskets that earned the most praise from Gillispie.

Crawford appeared to aggravate a foot injury on the first 3-pointer, and though he nailed the second just a possession later, he told Gillispie he wasn’t going to be able to finish the game.

“Joe was barely able to walk,” Gillispie said. “(He) sacrificed at the end by saying, ‘Coach, I can’t go,’ and that’s a guy that’s really emerging as a leader and is really a team player.”

Crawford missed last Saturday’s win over South Carolina. His status for tomorrow is “day to day,” said assistant coach Glenn Cyprien.

Bradley, who also ranks among the SEC’s top 10 scorers at 16.7 points per game, improved over the past few weeks as well, during a stretch in which he scored 20 or more points in seven of eight games.

Over the course of four games, Bradley played 191 consecutive minutes without exiting a game, a sign of true leadership, said Gillispie.

“He’s been fantastic, and he’s only getting better,” Gillispie said. “That’s what makes you proud as a coach to see a guy playing every single second of every single game, but not only that, every single practice. He means so much to us. He’s been awesome.”

Bradley hit eight free throws in the final 1:30 against UT and scored UK’s final 10 points to seal its win over South Carolina last Saturday.

Gillispie said he was having fun watching the Brooklyn native grow up on the basketball court.

“He’s taken total control,” Gillispie said. “He’s always been a good player, but he’s really becoming a good (player) who is becoming very, very comfortable at that (leadership) position, embracing the responsibility that position holds offensively and defensively and in the locker room. It’s fun to watch him improve.”

Crawford and Bradley have withstood their fair share of criticism since arriving at UK as half of the top-ranked recruiting class in the country. But Crawford said he and Bradley understand that criticism comes with the territory, and with UK still in a precarious position at 9-9, he knows he and Bradley will have to take the lead, especially tomorrow at Georgia.

“I don’t think Kentucky has been in this position in a long time,” Crawford said. “We have to look at it positively; if we win, we can change our season around and be more confident.”