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November 21, 2012This was a tall task - literally and figuratively - for Morehead State. Winning at Rupp Arena against No. 8 Kentucky would be no easy feat.
The Eagles had no hope on athleticism alone.
They had to get rough.
"They were very aggressive and scrappy," UK freshman Nerlens Noel said after the Wildcats had fought past the Eagles 81-70 on Wednesday. "They knew they wasn't as talented, so they know it was the only way they could have a chance to win or stay in the game, by staying aggressive."
For a while, that strategy made an unlikely upset seem possible. Kentucky (3-1) struggled to adjust to Morehead's physical play, and after a staggering 16-0 first-half run, the Eagles led 16-6.
"They see me every day, and that's how we're going to be every day," said Morehead State coach Sean Woods, once a scrappy point guard in his own right, playing for Rick Pitino at Kentucky. "We're going to fight."
And for a while on Wednesday, the Cats were in a dogfight.
Morehead (3-2) would lead by as many as 11 points in the first half, taking a 25-14 lead on Drew Kelly's basket with 5:28 to play before halftime.
"You got to give Morehead credit," UK coach John Calipari said. "They just came after us, got up under us, got body to body, hand checking. Needed it . I said it before the game, 'They are going to come after us,' and we didn't respond early."
Morehead's physical play came at a cost. The Eagles were whistled for 32 personal fouls, and Kentucky shot 41 free throws. And the Cats used six free throws in the final 3:16 of the first half to chip away at the Eagles' lead.
It took Archie Goodwin's layup with 3.1 seconds to play in the first half to assure Kentucky a halftime lead, and the Eagles still didn't go away. They led by as many as six points early in the first half, ruggedly rebounding - they had 16 offensive boards - and grinding defensively.
"They were trying to punch us in the mouth," said freshman Alex Poythress, who had 20 points and eight rebounds. "We were trying to punch them in the mouth."
But not ?
"No, not literally," Poythress said.
It only seemed that way sometimes.
"They did a lot of fouling, as you could see," said Goodwin, who led all scorers with 28 points. "I shot 17 free throws, so a lot of fouling went on. It was something that we needed, a good test for us, and we passed it."
Not without a big lift from Goodwin and Poythress.
"The issue is, I played Archie and Alex too many minutes, and you won't believe this, but I wanted to win," Calipari said. "I didn't want to lose the game, and those two had a will to win."
Noel showed one, too, finishing with nine points, 11 rebounds and six blocked shots.
"We just tried to use our physicality and see if we could shake the other team," said Morehead State swingman Milton Chavis, who led the Eagles with 23 points. "They won, so I guess they fought right with us."
And it won't be Kentucky's final fight.
Calipari said "I know there's one more" team on Kentucky's schedule that will play the way Morehead State did - presumably a reference to Pitino's Louisville squad - and said there might be others.
"How did people play us last year?" Calipari said. "They played us exactly the same way. Now what I see is that's how everybody is going to play us. You've got to mush and hope it's a day that (we're) not getting low and (we're) not getting through bumps and we bail out on shots."
So Calipari told his players to get ready for more games like Wednesday's.
"We'll definitely be prepared," Noel said, and Kentucky showed signs of adjustment against Morehead State.
Most notably, the Cats attacked the rack after initially "shooting all jump shots because it was the easiest thing to do," Calipari said.
After shooting 14 free throws in the first half, Kentucky shot 27 in the second. Ultimately, Poythress said, the grind-it-out nature of Wednesday's game was a good thing.
He admitted, though, that he'd be sore Thanksgiving morning.
Calipari doesn't have the bruises, but he too saw the value in the Morehead's battering-ram basketball.
"There are games you may be up 25, but what do you learn other than okay we got stats and nice stats and all - this is how you learn," Calipari said. "Let a team come in and bang you around and do their thing, you know?"