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
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.