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UK will face Connecticut in the national championship game on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will face Connecticut in the national championship game on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Annie Dunbar, CoachCal.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Kentucky Wildcats have accomplished something many basketball players can only dream of -- getting to play for a national title on the big stage -- but the reality of the fantasy is that what's transpired over the last few weeks isn't just made up of the unforgettable moments everyone has watched on TV.

This run has included many long nights, grueling turnarounds and just an all-out grind. The latest was the postgame celebration and media responsibilities of Saturday night's win over Wisconsin that quickly turned into more press conferences and practice on Sunday.

We're talking less than 48 hours to physically and mentally prepare from the final buzzer after the Final Four showdown to when the final two teams tip off in the title game. What makes it especially tough on both the coaches and the players is the struggle to sleep with all excitement and shock of what just happened, not to mention the impossible inability to look ahead at what Monday holds in store.

"If I really told you how late I went to bed, Coach would probably kill me," Julius Randle said about Saturday night after the Wildcats' 74-73 Final Four win over Wisconsin to advance to the title game.

But Randle wasn't the only one who had trouble sleeping. Aaron Harrison said he maybe got five hours of sleep after the Wisconsin game and Coach Cal didn't get much shut eye either. Calipari originally decided to sleep and look at game tape in the morning but quickly changed his mind once he thought about the hard work his players have put in all season.

"These guys are fighting so hard for me, I'm not going to do that," Calipari said about watching game tape. "I'm going to do the tape now. So I was up until about 3:30 (a.m.) and got up about 7 o'clock this morning."

Calipari may have only gotten a couple hours of sleep, but that was enough for him given the prize that awaits Monday's winner.

"We're working on fumes now," said Calipari, who is also operating on a bad hip. "It's not like we're not tired, but your adrenaline gets you through all this."

The only player who seemed to get plenty of sleep after the latest thriller was James Young, who can apparently sleep a lot.

"I kind of sleep through everything," Young said laughing. "I just love sleeping."

Aside from the outlier, Randle believes that once teams are this deep into the tournament, everyone is fueled by the exhilaration of winning the game.

"When you're winning ... that's what gives you energy," Randle said. "Last night I couldn't sleep, just excited about what all is happening. It's kind of hard after everything that happened last night to get in bed and go to sleep. It's definitely a grind. But I'd rather be in this grind than be at home."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Andrew Harrison leads UK into the national championship game vs. UConn on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Andrew Harrison leads UK into the national championship game vs. UConn on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Shabazz Napier, more than any other player in this year's NCAA Tournament, has been credited with carrying his team.

The junior guard scored 23.3 points per game in leading Connecticut to the Final Four, rendering his teammates an afterthought in the eyes of many.

But as the Huskies dispatched top overall seed Florida to advance to the national championship game, Napier proved what he's known all along.

"I don't need to be the guy in front of all the billboards saying, 'He was the man,' " Napier said. "I'm nothing without my teammates. I wouldn't be in this position right now without my teammates. It's just a collective group."

A collective group that needed its leading scorer to take just six shots to take down the heavy favorite for the title.

Napier, playing at least 37 minutes for the fourth time in five tournament games, didn't force his offense against the Gators. Instead, he was content to involve his teammates and be a self-described "pest" on defense to the tune of six assists and four steals.

"I tell my team all the time I don't care about scoring," Napier said. "I don't want to go out there and score all the points. I want to go out there, rack up assists, rack up rebounds, do whatever it takes to get the win. And my teammates are just doing what they're supposed to do. They're showing everybody how great of players they are."

DeAndre Daniels has been the breakout star of the tournament for UConn (31-8), particularly after his 20-point, 10-rebound performance on Saturday, but Ryan Boatright is indispensable in the backcourt alongside Napier.

Not only is he averaging 12.1 points per game, but Boatright has also evolved into the kind of defensive presence his coach always knew he could be.

"He had to mature as a young man and a basketball player," Kevin Ollie said. "It's not all about scoring. He can impact the game in so many ways and he's starting to do that at the highest stage. He's been doing it last year, he's been doing it this year, and now everybody is seeing it."

It was impossible to miss against Florida.

Boatright and Napier combined to handcuff Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin, holding him to six points on 2-of-9 shooting and forcing him into three turnovers. They will look to duplicate the feat against Andrew and Aaron Harrison, the twin guards playing their best basketball of the season for Kentucky (29-10).

"I ain't going to reveal all my secrets, but I'm going to just try to do my best to turn them up and down the floor, to try to make them uncomfortable," Boatright said. "Just try to get up in them and be a little physical with them."

Physical play doesn't figure to bother the Harrisons too much since they have around half-a-foot on the 6-foot-1 Napier and 6-foot Boatright. Nonetheless, they have a good grasp on the challenge facing them as they look to complete a remarkable run through the NCAA Tournament at 9:10 p.m. ET on Monday.

"It's going to be tough with those two guys," Andrew Harrison said. "Probably some of the quickest guys we've run up (against) all year. And they also have a great offensive game. It's going to be a tough matchup. You try to compare them to the Louisville guards that we played against with the full-court ball pressure and stuff like that, so we just have to stay low and be prepared for the pressure."

The pressure will come on both ends of the floor.

Napier is averaging 17.9 points and 4.9 assists, at times looking like former teammate Kemba Walker, who led UConn to a national championship in 2011, defeating Kentucky along the way in the Final Four.

"It's a great idea to be in that situation where people are comparing me to him," Napier said. "But at the end of the day, I'm not him. I want to do what he did: win the championship. Like I just said, we're just doing it a different way and walking a different path. We all want to get to the same promised land."

The Cats, having returned to the team hotel after midnight following a win over Wisconsin, have had little time to get into detailed scouting of the Huskies. They then had to tend to media obligations early Sunday afternoon, but UK planned to get down to business soon after.

"We basically woke up this morning and ate breakfast, but as soon as we get back we're going to be watching some film," Dominique Hawkins said. "We know that Napier, he's a great, great guard and all their players are good players. They wouldn't be in the national championship for no reason."

UConn played the early game on Saturday evening, so has had more time to take a closer look at Kentucky. Napier, having seen the Harrison twins in action, doesn't put much stock into the supposed battle of quickness vs. length when it comes to the Cats and Huskies.

"I think the Harrison twins are quick as us too," Napier said. "They're quick and strong. I don't think our quickness is going to beat them. I believe, when you're young, you got young feet. So I think it's definitely going to be tough. I think the Harrison twins have been playing much better."

That, of course, includes Aaron Harrison's incredible late-game heroics.

The UK shooting guard has now hit deciding 3-pointers in each of the Cats' last three wins, the latest an NBA-range dagger with 5.7 seconds left against Wisconsin.

"He's got that clutch gene that everyone's been talking about," Napier said. "He's not scared to miss the shot, because that's the chance you take. You take that shot, there's a chance you miss it. But he's going to be the guy that's wanting to be the hero and that's just a lot of respect."

But if you're looking for an x-factor that could play an important role in deciding Monday's outcome, look no further than Hawkins. Even though he's unlikely to even attempt a shot -- Hawkins scored for the first time in nearly three months on Saturday -- the matchup with UConn paves the way for the Kentucky native to see extended time.

Hawkins, after playing no more than seven minutes in a game since Jan. 8, has played 37 minutes over his last three outings. It all started when John Calipari took him aside in practice before UK's Sweet 16 showdown with Louisville, telling Hawkins to be ready for his shot at shadowing Russ Smith.

He ended up getting it, and was effective in limiting the Cardinal star as the Cats closed on a back-breaking run.

Smith and Napier, in terms of size, quickness and ability to score and distribute, are similar players. That begs the question: Has Coach Cal pulled Hawkins aside again for a similar conversation to the one that happened 10 days ago?

"Not yet," Hawkins said. "But hopefully he does because I'll be looking forward to the challenge."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

One more to go for one of the all-time runs

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Aaron Harrison at UK's pre-national championship game press conference on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron Harrison at UK's pre-national championship game press conference on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The car the Kentucky Wildcats drove in to make Monday night's national championship game, it has no rearview mirror.

"The guys that have played for me know I just keep looking forward," John Calipari said on the eve of the national championship game.

For all the unforgettable memories this Kentucky group has made, for all the iconic moments that will be played on NCAA Tournament highlight clips for years to come, and for all the stories of this team that will be passed down from generation to generation, these Cats are unaware of it.

They have no perspective on the grand picture of exactly what it is they're doing, the history they are making, simply because they don't have the time to process it nor the age to understand it.

"After we win the game we're happy and we're excited, but then we know we have to come right back and play another tough game," Dakari Johnson said. "I think after Monday we'll probably soak it all in. Win or lose it's been a great run, but we haven't really been thinking about the last two weeks."

And that's a shame, because it's been one hell of a run.

When Kentucky plays Connecticut on Monday at 9:10 p.m. ET in the national championship game, the Cats will try to put the ultimate cap on a run that's being hailed -- and backed up by the numbers -- as one of the most difficult in NCAA Tournament history.

UK has toppled the undefeated (Wichita State), knocked off the defending champs (Louisville) and slain the best teams from the country's best conference (Wisconsin and Michigan). The Cats have done all that not far removed from three of four losses to close the regular season, including an embarrassing loss at South Carolina.

Over the last couple of weeks, the players all said they believed Aaron Harrison when he foresaw a great ending to the season after that South Carolina game, but with that adversity well behind them and on the brink of closing out the unthinkable turnaround, Johnson admitted there was some shakiness to the theory.

"When we were losing a couple games, we had a little doubt in ourselves, but we just came together as a team," he said. "We always believed we had the talent. It was just a matter of time when we were going to show fight and compete. I think that's when we knew it was going to be a great story."

All that's left now is one more game and one more win for Kentucky's ninth national title and its second in three seasons. With a victory, Coach Cal will become just the second coach in UK's illustrious history to win two or more titles. The legendary Adolph Rupp has four.

"These guys know how I could care less (about that)," Calipari said. "This is about the joy that these guys up here will get. "

The title would be the first of any kind for a team so young. No team has ever won a national championship with five freshman starters, including Michigan's Fab Five. That group came up a victory short a title, but it is still remembered as one of the all-time teams.

This group could surpass them with a win on Monday.

"They changed the game," said Johnson, who has admittedly watched ESPN's documentary on that group a couple of times. "They didn't care what anybody thought of them and they believed in themselves. I wouldn't necessarily compare (us) to them - we don't really think about that - but they believed and so do we."

The belief by the Cats is probably the most logical reason why Kentucky weathered the sometimes torrential regular-season storm, but some have wondered during this run if a little divine intervention, essentially a date with destiny, doesn't have something to do with it.

After all, UK started the season with 40-0 dreams, lost 10 games in the regular season and then won four straight games in last-second fashion.

That seems too good to be true, right? Well, it's happened before everyone's eyes the last three weeks.

Jarrod Polson, a man of faith, has found himself on the bench sometimes during this run wondering how much destiny can play a part in such an implausible story.

"I'm still wondering about that," he said. "I mean, obviously it feels like destiny is on our side just the way the events have turned out and all of Aaron's big shots. I hope it's on our side. I don't know if God has a lot to do with sports as far as winning and losing goes, but you can never count that out. Hopefully we are a team of destiny."

Julius Randle said a national championship would have nothing to do with destiny and everything to do with a team full of hard workers.

"If we are the champions tomorrow, it will be because we did it together, played hard and trusted each other," he said.

The journey, at last, filled with all its rich storylines and unforgettable moments, will come to a close on Monday no matter what happens on that court at AT&T Stadium. This group, no matter what decisions they make in the coming weeks on their futures, will never fully be together again.

"The one thing I don't do a good job of is look back," Calipari said. "For these guys I keep saying, our destiny is out ahead of us, this team, because we're still getting better today."

But come midnight tomorrow, that car will come to a stop and all that's left to look at will be that rearview mirror. Win or lose vs. UConn, it's all over after Monday.

"We're just trying to cherish the moment and be together as much as possible because we all do love each other," Marcus Lee said. "We're just trying to savor the moment."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Notes: Johnson, UK clamp down on Kaminsky

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Dakari Johnson had 10 points and seven rebounds while defending Wisconsin leading scorer Frank Kaminsky on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Dakari Johnson had 10 points and seven rebounds while defending Wisconsin leading scorer Frank Kaminsky on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Story by Eric Lindsey and Guy Ramsey

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Derek Willis, imitating Wisconsin star center Frank Kaminsky in practice, earned the nickname "Derek the Destroyer" from Marcus Lee.

Willis may have terrorized Lee and Dakari Johnson, but it served a purpose.

The Cats limited Wisconsin's star center to just eight points on seven shots and limited his touches. Kaminsky also didn't manage a single 3-point attempt after torching Arizona for three treys and 28 points in the Elite Eight.

"It was perfect," Lee said. "Derek absolutely loved lighting us up in practice and we needed it a lot, especially going at (Kaminsky) now. He did exactly what everybody thought he was. He was great. He played his butt off and it just happened to tip the wrong way for him."

Lee, Julius Randle and Alex Poythress all took turns on the Badgers' leading scorer and rebounder, but it was Johnson who most often matched up with the versatile 7-footer. Hearing all the talk about how tough a matchup it would be for him, Johnson took the challenge personally.

"During practice he took it super serious when Derek was going at us because he knew he would be able to slide his feet and defend," Lee said. "We just had to make sure he was it was in his head the whole time and that's what he did. He played great defense the whole game."

Not only that, but Johnson added 10 points and seven rebounds, five of which came on the offensive end. The freshman is averaging 11 points and 5.3 rebounds starting with the Louisville game, when Willie Cauley-Stein went down with an ankle injury.

Cats still clutch


On Thursday, we broke down the Cats' offensive excellence in closing out wins over Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan.

UK didn't quite keep up its ridiculous two-point-per-possession pace, but the Cats once again were efficient in the clutch in advancing to the national championship game.

In six possessions over the final five minutes against Wisconsin, UK scored nine points for an average of 1.5 points per possession. The Cats shot 3 of 6 from the field, 1 of 2 from 3-point range and 2 of 2 from the foul line in the process.

Here are UK's updated offensive statistics in the last five minutes of the last four wins:

  • 28 possessions
  • 53 points
  • 1.89 points per possession
  • 14 of 21 (66.7 percent) from the field
  • 6 of 8 (75 percent) from 3
  • 19 of 23 (82.6 percent) from the free-throw line
  • One turnover
  • Five rebounds on 10 free misses (offensive-rebounding percentage of .500)

Against Wisconsin, UK scored on all three possessions on which it trailed over the final five minutes. The Cats have now scored on 12 straight possessions in such situations at a 2.33-points-per-possession clip.

The Cats have needed their offense to come through in the final minutes because their opponents highly ranked offenses are scoring almost at will. UK has allowed at least 1.08 points per possession in four consecutive games and an average of 1.19 over that stretch after Wisconsin rolled up 1.20 points per possession on Saturday.

Over that same set of four games, UK is scoring an average of 1.23 points per possession.

Drake visits locker room

With the Final Four on a stage like AT&T Stadium, Saturday night turned into a who's who of American celebrities.

Among the stars spotted in the record NCAA Tournament crowd of 79,444:

  • Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard
  • Comedian Kevin Hart
  • Naismith Hall of Famer Charles Barkley
  • UCLA legend Bill Walton
  • Heisman trophy winner Johnny Manziel
  • NASCAR driver Danica Patrick
  • Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson
  • Duck Dynasty's Willie Robertson

But the celebrity the Cats were most star-struck by - the artist whom many of the players likely have on their iPods - just happened to be in UK's locker room after the victory. Drake, after watching the Cats win 74-73, stopped by to celebrate with the team.

"He just talked to us," Dominique Hawkins said. "Told us to enjoy the moment."



Coach Cal, of course, has called Drake a friend since his days at Memphis. He served as a celebrity coach during the first Big Blue Madness of the Calipari era, and last year Coach Cal attended Drake's high-school graduation.

"It's crazy," Hawkins said. "I never had anybody famous ever celebrate a win with me or anything like that. I'm honored to be on this team. I guess it's a blessing for us to play for Kentucky because we have so many fans, fans like Drake. It's unbelievable."

Former Wildcat Terrence Jones was also in the locker room after the win.

Positive predicting

Lost in the heroics of Aaron Harrison's game-winning shot and Alex Poythress' big buckets late was the steady play of James Young on Saturday.

The freshman wing, who has hit his fair share of big shots during this NCAA Tournament run, led UK against the Badgers with 17 points. Young scored seven of Kentucky's first nine points and nailed the only 3-pointer of the game until Aaron Harrison's shot.

"James had it going," Aaron Harrison said.

Noting the wealth of stars on this UK team, which was punctuated by the fact that Young led all scorers Saturday and was just another guy in postgame video interviews, Calipari pointed out some Young's scoring barrages this season and predicted a big night for the Michigan native.

Remember, Calipari has been pretty spot on the last two games in predicting Marcus Lee's coming-out party and Alex Poythress' difference-making plays.

"James Young has had 25-point games, which I'll make a prediction he'll have in this Monday night game," Coach Cal said. "You listening to me, (James)? I'm putting a positive seed in your mind right now."

Calipari made a similar prediction before the 2012 national championship game about Doron Lamb. Lamb would go on to score 22 points to lead UK to a 67-59 win over Kansas.

Party on

While pandemonium broke out in AT&T Stadium as soon as Aaron Harrison hit the game-winning shot, mayhem took over in Lexington.

Reports out of Lexington showed pictures of students overtaking South Limestone and State Street in the seconds after the game. Videos of raucous celebrations at local bars and restaurants were easy to find on social media.

"They're definitely burning something right now," Julius Randle said.

Despite the effort of local authorities to tone down the celebrations of the 2012 run, there were reports of couches burning in Lexington.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Aaron Harrison's 3 with 5.7 seconds left gave UK a 74-73 win over Wisconsin in the Final Four on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron Harrison's 3 with 5.7 seconds left gave UK a 74-73 win over Wisconsin in the Final Four on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Aaron and Andrew Harrison had a moment as the clock ticked under 10 seconds.

UK trailing by two, Andrew Harrison passed to his brother. As Andrew Harrison shouted for him to 'Go, go!' a grin came across Aaron Harrison's face.

Having spent all of his 19 years around his identical twin, Andrew Harrison knew exactly what the look meant.

"He was smiling like he knew he was going to make it," Andrew Harrison said.

After a moment's hesitation, Aaron Harrison rose over Wisconsin's Josh Gasser. The Division I-record crowd of 79,444 anxiously watching -- and the blue-clad fans in attendance surely confident given the freshman shooting guard's recent history -- he buried the 3 from NBA range with 5.7 seconds left, propelling UK to a 74-73 victory and a spot in the national championship game.

"I want to be the one to take the shot and I'm not afraid to miss the shot," Aaron Harrison said. "As long as you're not afraid to miss I think you have a good chance of making it."

The same smile that appeared just before his latest clutch display creeping across his face, Aaron Harrison intimated he wasn't quite as confident as his brother thought. Pressed for a number, Aaron Harrison said he was "79 percent" sure the shot would fall.

"I knew I was going to pull up, but I wasn't a hundred percent sure I was going to make it," Aaron Harrison said. "So I'm just blessed to be in that position to take the last shot."

His teammates felt similarly blessed to be able to count on a player like Aaron Harrison, who climbed into the crowd to greet his parents and family of Texas natives moments after the buzzer sounded.

"When he wants to hit the big shot, he takes it," Alex Poythress said. "Somebody has to step up. He's taken that role."

Taken it and run with it.

Against Louisville, Aaron Harrison hit the go-ahead 3 in the final minute against Louisville as the Wildcats spoiled their archrivals' national title defense. Two days later, Aaron Harrison gave UK a 75-72 win over Michigan with a 3 sure to find its way on March Madness highlight reels for years to come.

On Saturday night, Aaron Harrison cemented his status as one of the best late-game shooters in NCAA Tournament history with his only 3-point attempt.

"It's amazing," he said. "It's unreal just growing up loving the tournament just being a part of it and just being a big part of history, really, with this great team and this great run we made to the Final Four."

It was a run that seemed on the verge of ending when Andrew Harrison fouled Traevon Jackson on a 3-point attempt with 16.4 seconds to go. But when the Wisconsin junior's first attempt at the line went awry, Aaron Harrison saw all the opportunity he'd need to take his twin brother off the hook.

"When you're down you have a little doubt in the back of your mind, but once he missed that first free throw I knew we had a good chance of winning the game," Aaron Harrison said.

Jackson made his next two shots and John Calipari opted not to call a timeout. He had already set the play during a break as the officials reviewed the clock before the three free throws.

"When we huddled, I said, 'We're going at Aaron, boys, anybody got a problem with that?' " Calipari said.

Of course, no one did.

Calling Andrew Harrison over after Jackson's miss, Calipari instructed his point guard to look for a layup on the drive or an easy dump-off to Dakari Johnson. If neither was available, Andrew Harrison was to pass to his brother, affectionately dubbed "the assassin" by his coach.

Aaron Harrison well covered and the Cats scrambling, Andrew Harrison dished to Johnson, who quickly gave it back. That's when that whole twin telepathy thing happened.

"I feel like they kind of talked to each other in their mind as that was going on," Marcus Lee said. "So they probably knew what was happening but we were totally lost. So I don't even know how to explain that one."

That was a theme in the immediate aftermath of UK's instant classic.

Randle, still beaming after tallying 16 points and a victory in front of his hometown fans, couldn't even recall the play UK ran to set up Aaron Harrison's shot barely 30 minutes after it happened.

"I can't even remember the name of the play right now because it's so crazy," Randle said. "I just knew Andrew was going to create something and Aaron ended up getting the ball and, I don't know, I can't really think right now."

Lee's memory is even foggier.

"I don't know what I was looking for--I don't even know," said Lee, who was on the bench for the play. "After that shot gets made and that buzzer ends, your brain kind of just shuts down after that big shot. So I can barely tell you what just happened."

Aaron Harrison recalls the specifics of the exchange a bit more clearly, but what really sticks out for him is a feeling he got from his coach and teammates.

"I think because Coach said he wanted me to take the shot and I think that gave me a lot of confidence," Aaron Harrison said. "I know my teammates had confidence in me, so I just fed off that, really."

With Aaron Harrison confident and hitting every big shot, UK is being talked about as a team of destiny as the Cats prepare for a showdown with Connecticut. But Aaron Harrison, the man responsible for so many of the magical moments that have the Cats a victory away from a ninth national title, has little interest in that discussion.

"I don't know about magic," Aaron Harrison said. "I think we all just fight and just don't let the games go. No matter what we know we have a chance to win so we always just try to keep fighting."

It would be unwise at this point to any kind of last-second heroics past Aaron Harrison at this point. And if you're worried about them becoming old hat to him, don't be.

"You're never used to stuff like that," Aaron Harrison said. "It's the best feeling. The feeling gets better and better every game."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Alex Poythress had eight points and seven rebounds in UK's Final Four win over Wisconsin on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Alex Poythress had eight points and seven rebounds in UK's Final Four win over Wisconsin on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Annie Dunbar, CoachCal.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Kentucky may start five freshmen but it was a sophomore who sparked the Wildcats late and led UK to the national championship game.

Before UK's Final Four showdown with the Wisconsin Badgers, John Calipari, who is looking more and more like a prophet with each stunning performance, said that Alex Poythress had more to give. He predicted that, like Marcus Lee before him, Poythress was due for a performance everyone would be talking about after Kentucky's Final Four game against Wisconsin.

"Alex is playing great and he's halfway home," Calipari said at his pre-Final Four press conference. "He's in the best shape, he's mentally better, he's helping us win. ... But now, they should be talking about him worldwide, but he's got to let loose."

And let loose, Poythress did.

After battling back from foul trouble and sloppy play, Poythress came up big late in the game two  huge plays. His monstrous dunk with 4:45 to play got UK within two points at 69-67, and his layup, a play in which he soared well above his defender to snag a lob pass from Andrew Harrison, gave the Cats a 71-69 lead, erupted the crowd at AT&T Stadium and set the stage for Aaron Harrison's game-winning shot in the 74-73 victory on Saturday.

"It felt good," Poythress said about battling back. "It got the momentum going. It sparked a little run for us. It got the bench hyped, got everybody into the game a little more."

Poythress finished with eight points -- four of which came in the final five minutes of the game -- and seven rebounds.

"Alex lost himself in the game," Calipari said.

Calipari thinks Poythress' aggressiveness and fierce play came from watching what Lee did in the Louisville game.

"Marcus Lee kind of woke him up," Calipari said. "Like if Marcus Lee can do that, I can do that. Everyone on this team is waiting for him to break out like he did and like he is now. He's in the best shape of his life. Mentally, he's in a great place mentally. He's playing fearless and he's just almost reckless, which is great for him because of his athleticism."

So Calipari predicted Poythress would come through against the Badgers.

"I texted him before because I had a bunch of my friends say he's going to have a big game," Calipari said. "I texted him, 'This is what they're saying, man. I love you.' He said, 'I love you, Coach, let's go have some fun.' And he went out there and played great."

His teammates were all proud of Poythress' performance.

"Unbelievable," Julius Randle said. "Huge. Just happy that he's playing that way. I'm just really proud of him and what he did for our team."

Willie Cauley-Stein, who was forced to watch the game from the bench due to a left ankle injury, thinks the positive vibes from the team and coaches helped fuel Poythress' performance.

"I've been with Alex for almost, a few years now," Cauley-Stein said. "I think that's how you get him going, all the positivity. Being negative with him, anybody when you're being negative to them, they just don't care. They're obviously going to fuel themselves, but you being positive, constantly in his ear like that, that's how you get Alex to play the way he does."

During the game, Poythress had an uplifting moment with assistant coach Kenny Payne, which he credits to the spark he brought the team when it needed him most.
"He said 'Keep on playing, man. We need you, we need you,' " Poythress said. "It's just how he is. He expects the best out of me. He's not going to settle for anything less. That's just the type of relationship me and KP have."

When the buzzer sounded, all of the Wildcats jumped on top of each other and Poythress ended up on the bottom of the dog pile. Poythress limped off the court after the celebration, apparently injured by the postgame pile-up, but Poythress said  he is fine.

"It's heavy," Poythress said of the dog pile. "Everybody is on you. But you're just having fun, being a bunch of kids."

On a team of a bunch of kids, the sophomore helped spark the victory.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

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ARLINGTON, Texas - The script has stayed the same through Kentucky's NCAA Tournament run: Hang around in the first half, get it close by halftime, make a second-half run and then pull out a heart-stopping victory.

With a side of Aaron Harrison heroics.

The Wildcats rode that script again Saturday night in the Final Four and right into the national championship game. The Cats, with a thrilling 74-73 victory over Wisconsin, have a date with Connecticut for the national title.

"Another great game," John Calipari said before putting his hand in the air in disbelief.

What else can he say? This run, these games, these finishes - Hollywood couldn't come up with a script like this.

It's left a man of many words speechless.

"We played seven freshmen, folks," Calipari said. "We played seven freshmen. They're all performing in that stage, under those lights, which is an amazing story."

Aaron Harrison provided the climactic, blockbuster moment again, this time with a 3-pointer and UK down by two. With the clock winding down and Kentucky's dream run fading, Aaron Harrison pulled up from long range with Josh Gasser on him - and nailed it with 5.7 seconds left.

"It was a play for Andrew (Harrison) to dribble down and me to catch it in the corner, but it didn't work out that way so he dribbled and passed it to Dakari (Johnson)," Aaron Harrison said. "He had to get it back in there and I just called for the ball. ... I just made some space and knocked it down."

Before that, Wisconsin had taken the lead when Traevon Jackson baited Andrew Harrison into fouling him on a 3-pointer with 16.4 seconds left. Jackson made the final two free throws after missing the first to give Wisconsin a 73-71 lead, but it was only setting  the stage for another iconic moment in a run chock full of them.

After making big 3-pointers against Wichita State, sinking the go-ahead 3 vs. Louisville and then drilling the game-winner against Michigan, teammates say Aaron Harrison was smiling - yes, smiling - just before he took the shot.

"He was smiling like he knew he was going to make it," Andrew Harrison said.

Said Aaron Harrison, who hadn't taken a 3 all game: "I knew I was going to pull up, but I wasn't a hundred percent sure I was going to make it."

Julius Randle never had a doubt it was going to go in. And who could blame him after what's happened during these last few weeks?

"I thought it was good," Randle said of the 24-foot, NBA-range shot. "I have all the faith in the world in him in a situation like that. Just what he did was crazy."

When Jackson missed a jumper inside the 3-point line, the Wildcats (29-10) were headed back to the national title game for the second time in three seasons with youth not seen since Michigan's Fab Five.

 "You can't be scared to miss and you want to be that guy that wants to take the big shot," Aaron Harrison said. "It's just the feeling that I want to be the one to take the shot, and I'm not afraid to miss the shot."

Wisconsin's Sam Dekker suggested after the game that Aaron Harrison has the "clutch gene."

"I just like winning," Aaron Harrison said. "If to hit that shot, if that's what I have to do to win, that's what I have to do. If it was a rebound or something else, I had to do to win a game, that's what I would try to do for my team."

Apparently all these Cats like winning. A number of them came up with clutch plays again even when UK appeared to be at the end of its good fortunes.

“We got a bunch of stars on this team,” Calipari said.

Down nine in the first half, UK did what did it against Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan by rallying late and making it a four-point game at halftime. Randle played a big part in shrinking Wisconsin's lead, scoring six of his first-half nine points in the 3:34 before the break.

“We’re not real good up 10, but for some reason, down 10, they grow hair on their neck,” Calipari said. “And all of a sudden they’re like, ‘Who are these guys?’ ”

But unlike the previous three games, the Cats didn't seize on their late first-half momentum and fell behind seven after Randle was blocked to open the second half and Dekker hit a 3.

Coach Cal knew the game was in the balance and called timeout just 59 seconds into the half.

"I can't tell you (what I said)," Calipari said. "Basically they didn't listen to me at halftime. The first play the guy takes a bad shot and then we leave and give up a 3. I just said, `Was anybody even paying attention to anything I said at halftime?' "

The Cats, as they've done all postseason, responded to their head coach with yet another defining run.

Sparked by defense, strong board work and Dakari Johnson's "and one," UK went on a 15-0 run to take a 51-43 lead. The young ones, they just don't wilt.

"These kids have been resilient," Calipari said.

But Wisconsin would not go away.

The Badgers answered with a 15-4 run of their own, retaking the lead 58-55 with 10:51 to play. From there, well, it was a finish familiar to anyone who has watched UK's previous three games.

The two teams traded punch for punch, dagger for dagger.

When Kentucky looked like it was finally running out of the gas down the stretch, Randle provided an old-fashioned 3-point play, Alex Poythress threw down a ferocious two-hand slam as he was fouled and then followed with a late-game basket on a lob pass from Andrew Harrison to take a 71-69 lead.

“Late in the game, they have an unbelievable will to win,” Calipari said.

Frank Kaminsky - whom UK held in check all night - tied the game at 71 with 1:15 to play.

Andrew Harrison missed a 3-pointer with the game tied at 71 and then fouled Jackson on the ensuing possession, but his twin brother had his back with the game-winning shot. In the postgame locker room, Calipari made Andrew Harrison get up and hug his brother.

"I'm proud," Andrew Harrison said. "He saved me."

With another familiar -- albeit unbelievable -- script, Kentucky has written its way into an improbable opportunity at a national championship on Monday.

It's been a run so unlikely, so hard to believe, that even the Cats don't have perspective on what type of special, unforgettable run they're on.

"No clue," Randle said. "We're just fighting. We believe in what we can do, we believe in our ability and we're just fighting."

They've got one more to go.

"We didn't come down here to get second," Aaron Harrison said.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Patient Wisconsin to test Cats in Final Four

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UK and Wisconsin will face off on Saturday at AT&T Stadium with a spot in the national championship game on the line. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK and Wisconsin will face off on Saturday at AT&T Stadium with a spot in the national championship game on the line. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- All season long John Calipari has poked and prodded, trying to find a way to get his young Kentucky team to sustain energy for complete possessions.

On the eve of the Final Four, one of his youngsters shed some light on just how difficult it is to do that as a freshman.

"Going through high school you don't really go through plays," Marcus Lee said. "You're kind of just running up and down, especially in AAU. So being able to come into a college team and be able to slow everything down, be able to slow your brain down mentally and just get through the whole 30 seconds and going through the same play over and over is real hard."

At no point this season has Kentucky been closer to overcoming that challenge.

The Wildcats, playing in three straight nail-biters against teams that made last year's Final Four, have had to muster every ounce of focus just to reach this point. Each game decided by five points or less, UK has played possession after possession with its postseason life hanging in the balance.

Fittingly, the next opponent the Cats (28-10) will face presents their toughest test yet on that front.

Only 10 teams in the country hold the ball longer on offense than second-seeded Wisconsin (30-7). The Badgers are a study in patience, their average offensive possessions lasting 20.5 seconds.  

Whereas some teams shoot late in the clock because of an inability to get good looks early, the Badgers wait because past performance suggests something good will happen if they do.

"They don't get bored with going through an offensive play for the full 30 seconds," Lee said. "They're disciplined enough to go through the whole thing the whole time, stay mentally ready and then be able to go play."

If the Cats don't match that focus, the Badgers will make them pay.

"They'll get you down in the shot clock and you think you can relax but that's where they make a backdoor or set a rip screen or something like that," Julius Randle said. "So they're all very skilled players who can shoot the ball and get into the lane."

Randle clearly understands that Wisconsin's success has to do with a lot more than just Bo Ryan's system, a fact that Coach Cal has been sure to impart to his team in preparation.

"So I will tell you that they're more athletic than you think," Calipari said. "They're more skilled than you think. They're not relying solely on an offense. They're not. They run great isos for all their guys so that they put them in a position where it's one on one. Bo hadn't done a whole lot of that in the past, but what I'm seeing, now they are."

Ryan has a number of options at his disposal, with six Badgers attempting at least 19 percent of their team's shots when on the floor and scoring at least 7.8 points per game.

"I think Bo is one of those guys that throughout this game, he will figure out -- and I've seen it in all the games I've watched -- where is there a mismatch, where is there something?" Calipari said. "You do something, Bo does something else. It's like Bo knows. So we got to be on top of what we're doing because he will put people in positions to hurt you."

Ryan, coaching in his first Final Four in 13 seasons at Wisconsin, says the Badgers wouldn't win a collective footrace if you matched them up against his former teams, but he also knows, like Calipari, that saying the Cats are the only team with athleticism is grossly inaccurate.

"When you say 'athletic,' this group we have is athletic in this sense: They have good perception and spatial skills for being a good offensive team," Ryan said. "Defensively they understand they're only as strong as all five guys playing together. Our best defense is five versus five, not in transition."

Because Wisconsin's best defense is in the half-court, the Badgers typically forgo crashing the offensive glass in favor of setting up on the other end of the floor.

"They don't allow too many easy buckets," Randle said. "They're just a great defensive team and you can obviously tell they communicate well on that end of the floor. They're just very solid, don't make too many mistakes."

You can chalk a lot of that up to experience.

The Badgers start four juniors and seniors, and UK, of course, five freshmen. The Cats, however, have little interest in that narrative.

"Every team in the country has more experience than us, I guess, but how could it matter if we're all in the Final Four?" Aaron Harrison said. "We're all just playing to win a championship."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Notes: Bad hip hasn't held Cal back

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John Calipari's Final Four press conference on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari's Final Four press conference on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas - He drags the pain with him wherever he goes. Like a 50-pound invisible dumbbell, it pulls at him when he climbs steps and jerks at him when he jumps during games.

John Calipari's bad hip: It hurts.

"If anybody's ever had a hip issue, they will know exactly what I'm talking about," Calipari said. "So the season, the end of it is coming at a good time, let me just put it that way."

After the year is over and Coach Cal is clear of any other responsibilities - remember, he has a new book that's about to be released that will need to be promoted - Calipari will go under the knife and have hip replacement surgery for the second time in his life.

But for most of this season, Calipari has coached through sometimes excruciating pain, choosing to withstand a major inconvenience rather than to sit out a few games to have the bad hip taken care of.

"That's just Coach for you," Jon Hood said. "He's more worried about coaching his team than his hip."

He's continued coaching with the bad hip during a season that's been more trying than most.

"I'm going to have to deal with this after the season is over, but the adrenaline you have and how you feel for your team pushed you through all that," Coach Cal said.

Calipari, as he's done for most of the season, continued to downplay the hindrance on Friday at the Final Four. When reporters have given him an opportunity to make an excuse this year and blame some of the struggles on a bad hip, Calipari has declined, doing the admirable thing and telling everyone it's had no effect on his job.

Even if it has.

"I'm just limping bad," Calipari said Friday. "I was taking some pain medication for four straight days and I just said, 'That's it, I'm not doing it.' "

Calipari has looked fine when he's jumped up and down in games and stomped his foot on the sidelines as though he was a 30-year-old coach again, but when the cameras are off and the adrenaline has subsided, it's been easy to spot the very noticeable effect of a hip that's falling apart.

"You don't sleep as good," Calipari said. "You don't get the eight hours. You're waking up. But I'm fine. The job at Kentucky ages you. It's not my hip."

Hood said Calipari hasn't been as "hands-on" this season, but he's not so certain it's only because of the bad hip.

"I don't think the season's been bad on his hip," Hood said. "I think it's just - and don't tell him I said this - Coach is getting old."

Hood said Coach Cal will still "get out there" on the court during practice when he gets irritated or frustrated, noting a pretty impressive achievement in UK's final practice in Lexington when something ticked off Calipari.

"He went out and did a pump fake, one-dribble pull-up," Hood said. "Made the shot so everything looked good then."

Not bad for someone with a pain holding him down.

Fore!

When people look at the Wildcats, Coach Cal wants them to see a team that's having more fun than anyone else.

Anyone at a local Dallas driving range on Wednesday night shortly after UK arrived in North Texas saw have seen just that.

Given a couple precious hours of free time on Wednesday night - about the only free time the Cats will experience all week at the Final Four - the UK players went to a driving range and practice a little golf. Or at least something that resembled golf.

"It was just all fun and games," Aaron Harrison said. "We were just talking trash to each other."

A couple of the Wildcats, in an Instagram video posted by walk-on Tod Lanter, showed off some pretty good swings.

"Jarrod (Polson) will tell you that he was really good once he learned that he was right-handed in golf," Hood said in a player-by-player analysis of the Cats' swings. "He was swinging the driver like it was a 33-inch softball bat and letting go, finishing with one hand. Sam (Malone) was good. He plays. Tod was good. He plays. Derek (Willis) hit the ball well. Marcus (Lee) hit it well. Andrew (Harrison) just has so much confidence he'll tell you he was great even though he was just mediocre. Aaron the same.

"Alex (Poythress) hits the ball like you would think he would: When he hits it it goes a long way and when he doesn't it's hilarious. James (Young) swung and missed a couple times. Willie (Cauley-Stein) was basically holding one leg off the ground and swinging."

But the highlight of the night - for both the Cats and for viewers of a Vine Polson posted to his social media - was Dakari Johnson's stiff, abbreviated, swing and miss.

"Dakari is terrible," Hood said. "Dakari Johnson has the worst golf swing I've seen since Charles Barkley."

Barkley, of course, is known for having one of the worst golf swings ever captured by video. To compare Johnson's swing to Barkley, in all honesty, may be a compliment.

"I've never played golf before so I wasn't really used to it," Johnson said. "I thought I did fine but I guess other people thought otherwise."



The swing has become so instantly infamous that even the PGA broke down his swing on its official website.

"We're not saying Johnson should stick to basketball, but he should definitely see a PGA Professional about that swing once school is out for the summer," the post read.

Shaq

Coach Cal hasn't seen the type of defense Julius Randle has had to face this year since a certain goliath was wearing LSU's uniform in the 1990s.

"He's being played like Shaq was played in college," Calipari said. "He's got three guys on him. You have teams after the game that said, 'I want six sets of eyes on him when he drives.' "

The constant defensive attention, which has ranged from trapping to denying the post to just flat-out fouling, took a toll on Randle midway through the season when his numbers started to suffer.

But when the postseason got underway and Randle got some seasoning, he's learned to deal with the unrelenting attention.

"It's definitely hard," Randle said. "It's frustrating, but I think when you win, it kind of takes the place of that. You don't really worry about it.  ... The biggest thing is that you try to learn how to affect the game in different ways, and that's what I've tried to learn this year.  Just try to help my teammates out."

Succeed and proceed


After announcing Thursday that he was going to rebrand the "one-and-done" label to get rid of the bad connotation associated with players turning pro after one season, Coach Cal revealed his new terminology on Friday: Succeed and Proceed.

"The connotation that's been built around one-and-done is so ridiculous to make it a bad thing, a negative thing," he said. "It's not used in other sports. It's not used in other areas of life where people stay in school for a year and leave."

Calipari emblazoned the new term on T-shirts, which he revealed Friday night on Twitter.



"You cannot proceed until you succeed," Calipari said. "Succeed and then proceed."

Rene' Cornette (@Rene81) was the first to come up with the slogan on Twitter.

The hash tag #SucceedAndProceed was trending earlier Friday.

Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood are in their third Final Four with Kentucky. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood are in their third Final Four with Kentucky. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- To have something and to lose it, to taste something so good and then have it snatched away, that's what makes this Final Four run even sweeter for Kentucky's graybeards.

UK's freshmen have stolen the show at this weekend's Final Four, and deservedly so with the historic productivity they've accounted for in a nearly unprecedented run. But for the Wildcats' "old" guys - veterans like Jon Hood, Jarrod Polson, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein - Kentucky's run to the Final Four has greater significance.

"This is what I stayed for," said Jon Hood, a fifth-year senior who is at his third Final Four in four seasons. "I stayed to get better, I stayed to have fun and I stayed to come back here, the opportunity to win another title."

Hood, along with Polson, could have left after last season and not come back. With degrees in hand and the option to transfer to another school and play right away under the NCAA's new graduate transfer waiver, the two opted to return to Kentucky knowing full well that their playing time would likely be limited.

Hood has played just 47 minutes this season, fewer than he registered in any of his previous seasons, and Polson has played 278 after logging 457 last year, but they don't regret - not even for a second - their decisions to come back.

In fact, they've relished it.

For all the memories they've collected over the years - a national championship, two previous Final Four appearances, and for Hood, playing with 17 players who are now in the NBA - this, to them, is their finest memory.

"I feel like this is probably the most exciting run we've been on so far ... just because the title year we were expected to win every game and this year everyone had us losing almost every game we played," Polson said.

It's the criticism they faced during the regular season when they lost 10 games and the second thoughts they may have had about coming back when adversity hit that have made this whole run all so worth it.

"What made it sweeter is everybody was counting us out," Hood said. "Everybody wanted us to lose from the second all these guys signed. That's just the way it works. To be back here in the Final Four is sweet and is always going to be sweet no matter if you come with us or Norfolk State or some random team, but to go through what we've gone through, the rollercoaster, up-and-down season, it just makes it all the better."

That, at its very essence, is why this Final Four run, even more so than in 2012 and regardless of the final outcome, is already being hailed as one of the all-time best at a school so embarrassingly rich with iconic moments.

After the way the season began, consumed with undefeated talk and with the Cats atop the polls; to the way it went, riddled with youth, losses and a failure to meet expectations; to the out-of-nowhere turnaround these last couple of weeks have produced, it's been a run that the veterans will forever savor.

"This is what you come here to do," said Alex Poythress, a veteran by UK standards. "Kentucky's got a great track record of getting here. You just want to be a part of it and make some history. (Growing) up, you want to make it to the Final Four and try to get to the championship."

But that dream seemed so distant and so unlikely just a year ago when Poythress and Co. were bounced in the first round of the NIT.

It's easy to point to UK's seven McDonald's All-Americans and future NBA players and predict a Final Four is a realistic possibility, but try telling that to last year's stable of McDonald's All-Americans like Poythress who sat in that locker room at Robert Morris and were so far away from this year's run.

"It's just incredible," Poythress said of what a year can do. "It's night and day really. Big difference. I'm just glad we're here and we can actually make some noise."

For Hood and Polson, who had experienced two previous Final Four trips, coming back the game's greatest stage is even sweeter because they now realize just how tough it is to get here.

"You definitely appreciate the Final Four the first time you come, but after last year going straight to the NIT and then losing in the first round and then having to watch and sit through this tournament the entire way without being able to be in, it really tears you apart," Hood said.

Hood and Polson didn't take the first two trips for granted, but to be at the top and get knocked down from it, it's made the climb back oh-so satisfying.

"I wasn't as grateful as I could have been," Polson said. "Just being back here is really cool for me and I'm really grateful for it."

The two seniors have tried relay their perspective to the freshmen who are all experiencing this for the first time and don't know any better.

"The biggest thing that I try to tell the guys is just to be positive with the whole thing and just really experience it because some of the best players in the world have not even experienced a Final Four," Polson said. "This is one of the biggest stages in any sport, so just being able to experience it and have fun with it is the biggest thing."

Because as last year proved, there's no guarantee they'll be back.

"You have to cherish the moment," Hood said. "You have to have fun. You have to live in the moment."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Recent Comments

  • Guy Ramsey: The song is "The Mighty Rio Grande" by the band This Will Destroy You. read more
  • Griffin: What's the name of the song that this video starts playing when describing Cal getting ejected and Aaron talking about read more
  • Quinn : It was an amazing run! I hope you all return and make another stab at it. read more
  • Sandy Spears: I completely with the person's comment above. So proud of all the young men and their accomplishments. They have everything read more
  • BJ Rassam: The Cats came so close to winning another NCAA basketball championship. read more
  • chattyone: Congratulations to our Wildcats! They are terrific. All of us just like these young men are disappointed in the loss, read more
  • clint bailes: Such a great season! You guys fought hard til the end. Loved watchin the season! Can't wait til next season. read more
  • Andrea Boyd: you guys are AMAZING! as individuals and as a team. thank you for your tremendous playing and work and attitudes. read more
  • laura n: What an honor and privledge to watch all of you grow into incredible young men. Never enjoyed a season more. read more
  • Amy Carnes: Very proud of you cats you have really grow as a team .You proved all the doubters wrong. And have read more