Crawford comes off the bench to ignite Cats to first win

Joe Crawford sat on the bench without as much as a glance from head coach Billy Gillispie for the first 13 minutes of last night’s game.

But when Crawford finally checked in, the senior guard put the Cats on his back, leading UK to a 67-40 win over Central Arkansas in front of 20,355 fans at Rupp Arena.

Crawford made seven of his 11 shots to score a game-high 20 points in just 18 minutes of play.

The win advanced the Cats (1-0) into the second round of the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer. UK will face Gardner-Webb, which defeated Alabama A&M yesterday, tonight at 9 at Rupp Arena.

Sophomore forward Mark Coury scored 10 of the Cats’ first 12 points as UK built an early lead, but eight first-half turnovers kept Central Arkansas (0-1) in the game. Coury, making his first career start, finished with a career-high 13 points and 10 rebounds.

Freshman forward Patrick Patterson was in foul trouble early, picking up two fouls in the first four minutes of the first half. Without Patterson, Gillispie had to look to his bench early in the game.

Though Gillispie had already sent junior center Jared Carter, freshman center Morakinyo Williams and freshman guard Kerry Benson into the game — a trio that totaled just one minute of play in two exhibition games — Crawford was conspicuously absent.

Crawford said it was not easy for him to watch the first 13 minutes of the game.

“I feel like I should be out there, but I still have to work hard,” he said. “I’m kind of behind those guys, and they’ve been proving themselves every day in practice.”

Gillispie went to a motto he has used all season when asked why it took so long to get Crawford into the game.

“Whoever earns it gets it,” Gillispie said of playing time.

“Joe’s a good player,” he said. “But he’s got to learn that we’re going to play competitively on defense. The best players look around and say, ‘This is really what my team needs me to do.’ I think he’ll do that in time.”

But with the Cats nursing an 18-11 lead with seven minutes to go in the first half, the senior checked in. Crawford sparked what had been a nearly dormant offense, scoring nine points in just six minutes to help the Cats to a 34-20 lead at halftime.

Crawford has drawn criticism from Gillispie for his effort on defense, but he said he has bought into his new coach’s philosophies.

“He has a way, and his way works, so we all have to buy in,” he said. “I am.”

After halftime, Crawford helped UK pull away.

Freshman guard Alex Legion stole an inbounds pass underneath the UK basket and flipped it to Crawford for a layup with 16:35 left to play in the game.

On UK’s next possession, Crawford laid in another basket as he was fouled and hit the ensuing free throw. Just two minutes later, he picked off a pass at midcourt and finished the play with an emphatic one-handed dunk.

By the 12:45 mark, when Crawford left the game to a standing ovation, the Cats had a 13-point lead. Central Arkansas would never come closer.

It took Central Arkansas over six minutes to hit its first field goal, and the Bears hit just 10 in the entire game, shooting 20 percent. Guard Marcus Pillow epitomized Central Arkansas’ shooting struggles, going 3-for-17 from the field for nine points. Forward Durrell Nevels led the Bears with 10 points.

Still, Gillispie was not satisfied with the way the defense played despite holding the Bears to 40 points.

“Not very good,” he said of the defense. “Their 20 percent wasn’t enough us, and was more them.”

The win was Gillispie’s first official one as the UK head coach and improved the Cats record to 87-18 in season openers.

But the Cats have a long way to go to accomplish what the coach wants during his time in Lexington, Gillispie said.

“It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about Kentucky basketball. It would mean more to me to honor this state and this university and this basketball tradition with unbelievable play. We’re going to do that, but I want to honor this state and this university better than we have so far.”