Kentucky Downs UNLV in NIT Opener
March 17, 2009
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Jodie Meeks scored 19 points and Patrick Patterson added 16 as Kentucky got past UNLV 70-60 Tuesday night in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament, the first NIT appearance in three decades for a Wildcats team accustomed to bigger stages in March.
If there was lingering disappointment after the Wildcats snapped a 17-year streak of appearing in the NCAA tournament, it didn't show on the court. Kentucky (21-13) scrambled for every loose ball, building a 20-point lead midway through the second half then weathering a late surge by UNLV (21-11) to advance to the next round against the winner of Creighton and Bowling Green.
Although this year's Wildcats team has seldom resembled the championship ones led by coach Adolph Rupp, for one night, the players and fans got to turn back the clock - sort of.
With Rupp Arena unavailable due to a scheduling conflict, Kentucky hosted a game at Memorial Coliseum for the first time since 1976.
A sellout crowd of 8,327 people packed the gym. The crowd was loud during timeouts and deafening during the highlight plays. At times, coach Billy Gillispie could be seen touching his ear, unable to hear a player standing right next to him.
Leading 19-18 with seven minutes left in the first half, Kentucky went on an 8-0 run to pull away.
The Wildcats stretched the lead to 36-24 at halftime when Darius Miller missed a last-second layup, only to have it dunked back in by Patterson. The Memorial Coliseum crowd erupted on that play as the teams headed to the locker rooms.
Patterson chipped in 11 rebounds for his 15th double-double of the season. He also sparked the team with his hustle, at one point diving to deflect a ball out of bounds off a UNLV player.
Ramon Harris similarly gave the fans something to cheer, twice scoring on dunks from inbound passes.
Kentucky built its early lead despite cold shooting from Meeks, the all-Southeastern Conference guard. Meeks heated up in the second half, nailing two early 3s, then hitting a critical jumper in traffic with three minutes left to half UNLV's comeback attempt.
The Rebels cut the lead to 60-57 with four minutes left after a 3-pointer by Joe Darger. Most responsible for the comeback was Wink Adams, who nailed two 3s in the span of a minute just moments earlier. Adams led UNLV with 14 points.
While the NIT wasn't quite as foreign to UNLV, the Rebels were playing in it for the first time since 2005 - Kruger's first season as coach. UNLV had played in four straight NITs leading up to that.