Cats Take Big Step toward Self-Sufficiency with USC Win

Alex Poythress, Kentucky’s lone senior, didn’t even make the trip. John Calipari spent most of the game watching from the locker room after being ejected. The frontcourt fouls kept piling up. An already fired-up road crowd smelled blood.

The Wildcats had every reason to fold up the tent, but that was the last thing they were going to do.

“They reality of it is this game is about fight,” associate head coach Kenny Payne said. “That team wanted to physically intimidate us. That team wanted to beat us up and show they’re superior to the way we play, that we are soft. Well, we went out and fought for what we fought for and we had success doing it.”

On the strength of that fight, UK turned in one of the most impressive regular-season performances of the Coach Cal era with first place in the Southeastern Conference on the line. The No. 22/21 Cats (19-6, 9-3 SEC) downed South Carolina (21-4, 8-4 SEC) in a road win just as dominant as the 89-62 final score indicated.

UK’s prospects seemed fairly bleak when Coach Cal was ejected less than three minutes in, but the moment served only to unite the Cats.

“It was a shock,” Tyler Ulis said. “It was crazy. I’ve never seen anything like that. But we all just responded. We tried to take over as a team and just stick together and do it all for Coach."

Ulis did plenty for his coach.

The sophomore point guard just may have interjected himself into the conversation for national player of the year honors in posting a career-high 27 points and 12 assists, adding two steals and committing only a single turnover. And to make his afternoon even more impressive, Ulis essentially became UK’s offensive coordinator when Calipari was sent to the showers.

“Guys couldn’t really hear calls from the sidelines and the coaching staff, they gave me the green light to just call what I wanted to call,” Ulis said. “I just tried to get guys set and just try to get the win.”

That allowed Payne, leading the team from the sideline in Calipari’s absence, to focus on defense.

“I never touched on offense – didn’t have to,” Payne said. “Between Cal and Tyler Ulis, they’re on the same page, and Tyler Ulis ran the offense. Every now and then I may have interjected something, but at the end of the day it was his show. The only thing I cared about was that we rebounded the ball, played great defense and shared the ball.”

UK had the defense and rebounding covered against a South Carolina team hungry for a signature win. The Cats held South Carolina to 32.7-percent shooting and nearly played the Gamecocks – one of the nation’s best rebounding teams – to a draw on the glass, losing the battle on the boards only 39-38.

“I’ll say this to you: South Carolina is the most physical team in this conference,” Payne said. “They are the toughest, fighting-est team in this conference. They win games because they absolutely beat you up, physical play, offensive rebound, defensive rebound, attack you constantly and for us to play the way we did makes a statement about who we are.”

Marcus Lee was essential to that effort. His alley-oop dunk off a backboard pass from Ulis might make SportsCenter, but the tone he set in posting 11 points and 13 rebounds was the true story.

“I feel like it just started with him rebounding,” Ulis said. “Trying to get in the paint for us. Guys got into foul trouble and he held it on his own down there getting boards. He saved me on that backboard lob. He just had a lot of energy today, dunking the ball, going up strong and rebounding for us.”

From Ulis’ leadership to Jamal Murray’s decision-making in pouring in 26 points to Lee’s toughness, UK put into action everything Calipari has been teaching all season. In spite of the fact Coach Cal’s contact with his team was limited to only a brief halftime speech, his fingerprints were all over his team’s performance.

“He apologized to the players for whatever, losing his cool whatever, wished it wouldn’t have happened,” Payne said. “But at the end of the day, again, his influence coached this game.”

Calipari might regret why it happened, but he now has a team that has taken the reins from him. That’s what he’s always been working toward.

“I have never been more proud of a team,” Calipari tweeted after the game. “They are now empowered. They've proven that they don’t need me and I love it.”