Runnin’ Bulldogs crash Cats’ N.Y. party plans

Gardner-Webb University apparently missed the memo.

The Bulldogs were invited to Rupp Arena for the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer knowing they had a potential date with UK in the second round.

But on a night when UK head coach Billy Gillispie was supposed to be celebrating his 48th birthday — a night when Gardner-Webb was supposed to move out of the way so the Cats could advance to New York for the final two rounds of the tournament — the Runnin’ Bulldogs crashed the party.

Led by sophomore guard Grayson Flittner’s 22 points, Gardner-Webb defeated UK 84-68 at Rupp Arena last night. Cold shooting — the Cats shot just 35 percent — doomed UK. Poor defense didn’t help, as the Bulldogs shot 53 percent. Gardner-Webb senior forward Thomas Sanders added 21 points and 10 rebounds.

When sophomore guard Jodie Meeks scored UK’s first points 4:28 into the game, Gardner-Webb had already jumped to a 14-0 lead.

Twice in the opening four minutes, the Bulldogs missed shots but corralled offensive rebounds and scored. Two other times, they hit 3-pointers over the UK defense. And four times in that period, the Cats turned the ball over, keeping them off the scoreboard.

When Meeks finally scored, it looked as if the Cats may immediately claw back into the game. He scored twice more and, aided by freshman forward Patrick Patterson’s first points, cut the lead to 17-8 by the 10:33 mark. The Cats made only two of their first 10 shots but were 4-for-7 during the run.

But turnovers — the Cats had nine in the first half — plagued UK again.

After Gardner-Webb had built the lead to 11, Flittner scored 5 consecutive points to push the Bulldogs ahead 26-10. It was Gardner-Webb’s largest lead of the first half, and it seemed to wake UK up for the second time.

The Cats poured in the next 6 points, 4 of them by Patterson, and trimmed the lead to 10. A 3-pointer by Meeks shrunk the lead to 9 with 7:00 to play in the first half. After senior guard Joe Crawford scored to cut it to 7, the Rupp Arena crowd came to its feet.

But yet again, the Bulldogs held off the UK rally.

Junior guard Aaron Linn poured in 6 of the Bulldogs’ final 8 first-half points, including a fade-away at the buzzer that pushed the lead to 38-27 at the half.

In the second half, it was freshman guard Alex Legion proved why he came to UK with a reputation as a jump-shooter.

Legion made his first three shot attempts, all 3-pointers, and made two steals, pulling the Cats within 55-42 at the 11:40 mark. The freshman finished with a career-high 13 points.

UK then cut it to 55-46 with 4 straight points by senior guard Ramel Bradley, but a 3-point play by Flittner — he made a lay-in, was fouled and made the ensuing free throw — pushed the Gardner-Webb lead to 12.

The Cats wouldn’t make another run.

Flittner nailed another 3-pointer from the corner that pushed the lead to 61-50 and, after a free throw by sophomore center Auryn MacMillan, hit two free throws to push the lead to 64-50. Linn fired in a 3-pointer from the top of the key just a minute later, pushing the Bulldog lead to 67-51. With that, fans began to pour out of the arena, and the bright lights of New York City were no longer a reality for the Cats.

Bradley led all scorers with 24 points. The UK senior made all 14 of his free-throw attempts.

Gillispie had complained about UK’s early start to the season, saying his Cats needed more time to practice. Now he has it — the Cats won’t return to the court until Nov. 21, when they take on Liberty at Rupp Arena.