LOUISVILLE — Western Kentucky has left one big impression on Kentucky’s players and coaches.
“I noticed they liked to rebound a lot, but they really like to play hard. I mean, they do not give up. They just keep competing,” said Kentucky freshman point guard Marquis Teague. “We can’t play not to lose against them. We’ve got to play. If we get up, we better finish them off. We know if we play around, they will come back. They have nothing to lose. We know it will not be an easy game because of how hard they play.”
Western Kentucky looked beat against Mississippi Valley State Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio, when they were down 16 points with 4 minutes, 51 seconds to play and rallied to win. That was the biggest comeback with under five minutes to play in NCAA tourney history and got the Hilltoppers a chance to play No. 1 UK¿Thursday night in the NCAA Tournament South Regional.
“That's what makes them dangerous. I told my team today, if you think they're going to stop playing with 4:39 down 16, you're out of your mind. I just watched it. They're not stopping,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Literally, the other games I watched, they had people — or the people had them beat. It was over. And all of a sudden, you have to go back. How did they do this? They made plays.They just play a vicious game. (Coach) Ray (Harper) should be proud of them. Their community should be proud of them,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari.
All the numbers, though, favor UK in this one. Kentucky has averaged 76.7 points per game and allowed 59, while Western has scored 65.1 and given up 68. Kentucky shoots 48.3 percent from the field, Western 39.7. UK foes are hitting only 36.8, Western opponents 43.1 The Wildcats have a 7.2 rebounding advantage per game while Western is at minus 0.2. Kentucky gets 8.8 blocked shots per game, Western 4.1.
However, the Hilltoppers improved all their numbers dramatically to win the Sun Belt Conference Tournament and now are coming off a historic win and are riding a season-high seven-game win streak under Harper, who took over as head coach at midseason.
“What a great story. The job Ray has done to have a young team — and they are young too — come together, coaching change, and figure it out. Then if you watch them play, you've got to understand now, folks, they've been down 13, 16, 13, 11, and I'm talking their last six games, and come back and win,” Calipari said.
“They're a great rebounding team. They fly it up and down the court. It's going to be a hard game for us. First game is always hard. They've already played one. They're confident. We're a bunch of freshmen and sophomores trying to figure this out. It will be a hard game.”
Kentucky had not lost since mid-December before falling 71-64 to Vanderbilt Sunday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament title game, a loss that did not keep UK from being the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA.
“We don't like losing. Coach Cal doesn't like losing, so we try to pick it up a little bit,” Kentucky senior Darius Miller said. “We try to get focused on what we need to do going into the tournament. This has been our main goal all year, so we need to get dedicated to what we need to do to win this tournament. That game really motivated us. We had a good two days of practice. So we'll see how it goes.
“I think we were a little angry after the loss,” UK sophomore Terrence Jones said. “We are not going to forget that feeling. We are going to use that to make us better and make us compete harder against Western Kentucky. We know we can play better and have to play better.”
Sophomore guard Doron Lamb, who was only 2-for-11 from the field against Vanderbilt, says the players have taken extra shooting the last two days.
“All season we have worked hard for this. Now we have to go prove to the world that we are the best team in the country,” Lamb said. “We know everybody, including Western, wants to beat us and will play their hardest for 40 minutes. But we do not want to lose again. We played bad (against Vanderbilt). Now we have to get over that and focus on Western.
“We are not perfect. We cannot win every game. We just don’t want it to happen again and it is up to us to make sure that it does not happen again.”
However, the Hilltoppers, who were 9-18 a month ago, didn’t sound intimidated about playing Kentucky.
“Playing Kentucky, No. 1 seed, it's going to be a crazy environment. They pack their fans in the arena everywhere they go, so you know it's going to be crazy,” Louisville native Jamal Crook, Western’s third leading scorer at 8.6 points per game, said. “It's basketball. I'm just going to approach it as just another game. Just going out and just playing ball.
“It's definitely a dream come true. Throughout my career, I never got a chance to play against UK, and I played against almost all the Kentucky teams except for UK and Morehead. It is a dream come true, especially coming back and playing in the Yum Center, playing against Kentucky.”
Harper doesn’t want his team to change how it has been playing.
“We did game plan no differently for Kentucky than we did Mississippi Valley. We have some things that we want to do tomorrow. But I think the most important thing in preparation is that you prepare the same way each time,” the Western coach said. “We always talk about Kentucky right now is the biggest game we've got because it's our next game. So we're ready. We're going to go out and play hard and have some fun doing it.”
UK Basketball: Kentucky players have been impressed with Western Kentucky
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