Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Real Battle of the Bluegrass

Across most of the nation, the phrase “Kentucky rivalry” usually conjures images of former Kentucky and current Louisville coach Rick Pitino, the “Dream Game,” Tubby Smith’s defensive philosophy, or the Cardinals annual pasting of UK in their annual football game. For forty minutes in Richmond last night, that more TV-friendly rivalry took a back seat to one with a longer and equally storied past. The oldest rivalry in this state exists between Western Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky. This was a classic rivalry game, too. The teams were not evenly matched in terms of talent, but what the Colonels lacked in athleticism or speed, they made up with good, old-fashioned guts and desire.

As McBrayer Arena was filling to near capacity (6,250 on hand), the Kentucky Barbershop Chorus executed beautiful renditions of both the “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “My Old Kentucky Home.” The rich baritones and tenors echoed off of McBrayer’s cathedralesque, wooden-domed roof and the chorus drew bipartisan applause. The watertight harmonies soon gave way to a “WKU—YOU SUCK!” chant in a thick eastern Kentucky accent. Everyone was ready for some hoops at that point.

1st Half
“The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home.”
14.51: Both teams have come out ready to play. EKU senior PG Matt Witt scares the living crap out of me. He will pull up from anywhere and in a rivalry game with a throng of students and fans at his disposal that man is going to be hard to stop. He just juked and launched a fade away three from Pikeville that ripped the net. It is 13-10, WKU.

“The young folks roll on the little cabin floor.”
7.04: Topper young ‘un (FR) Daniel Emerson just made a nice spin to the goal for a hoop plus the free throw. The Toppers superior athleticism is starting to make an impact. That bucket capped an 8-0 run that forces an EKU timeout. 28-20, Tops.

4.39: A rash of EKU turnovers followed by a waterfall of Topper threes pushed the lead to 42-20. Western completes a run similar to the last ten minutes of their last game at UAB. Anthony Winchester has made two threes during this run and Ty Rogers added another. EKU’s Jason McLeish hits a three to end it and make it 42-23.

It is 51-32 Toppers and EKU is on the verge of being royally embarrassed on their home court. This is a rivalry game though, and I do not expect them to go quietly. And they didn’t. Not by a long shot.

2nd Half
“By and by hard times come a-knockin’ at the door.”
13.05: EKU storms out of the second half gate behind a barrage of threes from Witt and G Mike Rose (who hit five on the night). They have shaved a 19-point halftime lead to just six in seven minutes. The crowd finally gets to be a factor and is getting amped.

More hard times come a-knockin’.
3.03: The last ten minutes have consisted of both teams making a ridiculous amount of three-point shots. The WKU lead has fluctuated from six to ten for this stretch, but a Darnell Dials dunk and then two Witt free throws trim the once robust Topper lead of 22 point to just ONE. 83-82, WKU.

“Weep no more my lady!”
1:36: Back to back threes by Benson Callier removes the sinister specter of a monumental EKU comeback win. A three from the corner took guts, but with a six point lead, WKU only had to run clock and make free throws. Instead, they hoisted two rushed bricks, with the last ending up in Callier’s hands. He promptly lofted another ill-advised three that tickled the twine and buried the Colonels. Not a good shot, but a good result as that Three made it 91-82.

“To my old Kentucky home, goodnight.”
0.03: Courtney Lee leaks out for a monster two-handed slam to emphatically end the scoring. 97-89, WKU wins.

Click here for the game story and the box score. In short, WKU set a school record by making 16 Threes (16-37). EKU made 13 of 26 of their own. Lots of runnin’ and gunnin’ and lots of points, but the defense left something to be desired. Both teams must find a way to give up fewer wide-open perimeter looks. Still, it was a great game and it is a great rivalry. The Tops also got that valuable “gut-check” that they needed on the road.

More tomorrow on the national hoops scene.