Cats hog-tie ‘Backs in final minutes for win

The bubble just won’t burst. In fact, it seems to keep getting bigger.

UK snatched another victory from the jaws of defeat Saturday, this time a 63-58 win over Arkansas in front of 24,371 fans at Rupp Arena, keeping the team’s NCAA Tournament hopes intact for at least right now.

A tournament bid is not something the Cats are focused on. Instead, the team has adopted a one-game-at-a-time mentality that seems to keep them headed in the right direction, even when they aren’t playing their best basketball, said sophomore forward Perry Stevenson.

“When you watch ESPN and you don’t hear your name about making the tournament, what else can you do?” said Stevenson, who had 8 points and 7 rebounds against the Razorbacks. “You can’t look forward to the end of the season because it’s not a definite that you’ll be in there. But we’re just taking it one at a time, and I think we’ll be all right at the end.”

UK shot just 40 percent from the field but kept Arkansas from establishing an offensive rhythm, holding the Hogs to 41.7 percent shooting while limiting their leading scorer, guard Patrick Beverley, to 4 points on 1-of-8 shooting.

“I’d rather shoot a little bit better percentage,” head coach Billy Gillispie said. “I would like to shoot 56 percent one time and play the same kind of defense, but it didn’t happen today.”

The Cats (15-10, 9-3 Southeastern Conference) fell behind early but charged late in the first half during an eight-minute span in which Arkansas (18-8, 7-5 SEC) failed to hit a field goal. After taking a five-point halftime lead, UK struggled out of the gate again to start the second half. Arkansas went on an 11-2 run to begin the second frame, but the Cats withstood the attack and battled back again.

It was yet another ugly win for a team that seems to thrive in close games. Just as they have throughout conference play, the Cats held on in the final minutes Saturday. Trailing 53-50 with 3:28 to play, UK outscored Arkansas 13-5 to close the game.

“I think they really know that we’re a blue-collar, hard-nosed, very close, tough-minded team,” Gillispie said. “We’re going to guard every single possession. We’re going to make some mistakes. We’re going to give up some baskets.

“They’ve really gotten to the point where they think every single possession is their time,” he said. “That’s a definite sign of maturity.”

And seemingly no player on the team has matured as much as senior guard Joe Crawford.

Gillispie criticized Crawford early in the season for his defense, and even though Crawford scored 18 points, it was a defensive play that swung momentum the Cats’ way for good.

After senior guard Ramel Bradley — who also scored 18 points — hit a step-back jumper with just one second on the shot clock to give the Cats a 57-55 lead with 1:27 to play, Crawford kept the Hogs from tying the game.

Arkansas guard Sonny Weems, who led all scorers with 26 points, had a short jump shot that would have evened the score on Arkansas’s next possession, but Crawford tipped the ball as Weems went up for the shot. Weems had to gather the ball on the way up and left the shot short.

Freshman forward Patrick Patterson snagged the rebound, one of his game-high 11 boards, and the Cats were able to ice the game from the free-throw line after that. Patterson scored 14 points, as UK’s “Big Three” combined for 50 of its 63 points.

UK out-rebounded Arkansas’s athletic frontline 38-23, including a 13-3 advantage on the offensive end that led to 12 second-chance points.

The win spoiled Arkansas coach John Pelphrey’s homecoming, as the former UK player couldn’t defeat his former team.

“I really wanted to win,” Pelphrey said. “Now I gotta listen to all the people in Paintsville (Ky.) talk about who’s better.”

Gillispie spent much of the early season telling his team it needed to compete harder and get tougher, but Saturday it was Pelphrey questioning the toughness of his team. That UK is now the tougher team on the court is a “great feeling,” Bradley said.

After their early season struggles, the Cats are now 9-3 in the SEC and still clinging to second place in the SEC East with just four games left before the conference tournament. As hard as it may be for some fans to fathom the way UK has come together, the team always had faith it would happen, Stevenson said.

“I’m on the team, so I would’ve believed it. But I don’t think anybody else would,” Stevenson said. “We just kept faith and every game, we’re just getting wins.”