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Wildcats Escape Pesky Cleveland State, 68-61

This story appear courtesy of KY Forward and is written by James Pennington. KY Forward's coverage of UK Athletics is sponsored by Republic Bank.

For a brief period during No. 3 Kentucky’s game Monday against Cleveland State, the outcome was inevitable and irreversible.

UK isn’t going to win this game easily turned into, Man, Cleveland State is hanging around, which quickly in the second half turned into, Cleveland State might win this thing, which after another shot clock-beating shot turned into, There’s no way Cleveland State loses this game, which somehow morphed into, Well, UK has a push, and each push then what-seemed-like ultimately became, Nope, Cleveland State’s winning this game.

You know the feeling. It’s a lot more common in March than November, but funny blips pop up from time to time in the early season calendar. It’s how upsets happen, and upsets rarely come from nowhere, at least not in the vacuum of that game. Monday’s would-be upset began to broadcast itself wide with 11 minutes to play, when Trey Lewis hit an unlikely 3 to extend Cleveland State’s lead to 47-38 after Kentucky had scored a few unanswered points.

When Bryn Forbes’ two made free throws gave the Vikings a 54-44 lead with 7:41 to go, everyone else in America, just like you, had their first choice for March Madness upsets already penciled in.

But then something equally as unlikely as a Cleveland State win in Rupp Arena happened: The Wildcats finally powered up. That imagery works, too, because that’s what it seemed like. They had been playing in safe mode for the first 32-or-so minutes of the game, and all of a sudden, the team booted up and ran like it’s supposed to run. Over the next seven minutes, the Wildcats scored 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting. In the 32 minutes before that, they had scored 44 points on 12-of-42 shooting.

All of a sudden, the system was running fully optimized, and Kentucky learned a lesson about how to get to that point without a crash.

That’s become the thing: Well, these guys are just so young, the only way for them to learn a lesson about playing hard and figuring themselves out is for them to lose a game and go from there. It’s been perpetuated, so it has become true. Remember: This is the Internet. But Cleveland State coach Gary Waters didn’t think so.

“I’m a true believer you don’t have to lose to learn,” Waters said. “I think he’s trying to teach them some things, and he don’t want to lose the game to get that done because it only puts him further and further behind in his process that he’s trying to develop.”

So what did Kentucky learn from not losing, again, under the pretense that such tutelage is possible?

“I think the biggest thing we learned is, we can come together in tough times and still prosper and still win games,” Julius Randle said. “We always know we can’t take opponents lightly. There’s going to be things we have to do approaching a game that we’ll have to do different. Me personally, I know I have to start off better. I’ve just got to stop thinking so much and keep playing. It’ll be fun.”

No team now is playing its best that it will play all season; if a team were, that would be strange and foreboding. Whether the Wildcats learned more from Monday’s comeback win or Nov. 12’s 78-74 loss to Michigan State, only time will tell. And of course, even then the results would be difficult to analyze given the context that one team is Cleveland State—a good team, as it showed Monday night, but still an out-manned mid-major opponent—and the other received 56 of 65 first-place votes in Monday’s Associated Press top 25.

But learning from Monday’s win is not a lost cause.

“For me personally, I like the winning and learning more than lose and learn,” Randle said.

Written by James Pennington

Photo: Andrew Harrison scored a key basket and helped Kentucky come back to beat Cleveland State 68-61 on Monday. (Photo by James Pennington)

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