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Senior Day’s “Blue Haze” Provides Fitting Home Conclusion for Wildcats

@CoachRyanKY 🦉

Ahh, senior night.

Senior night takes on different meaning when John Calipari is the leader of your beloved program. Not only do you celebrate the degree-earning scholars that will go on to change the world. You coequally celebrate the elite athleticism of the top young basketball talent in the world as the White Elephant roars as loudly as a capacity filled Rupp Arena crowd that we won’t see many of these players compete at Rupp Arena. Or at least compete in a Kentucky game at Rupp Arena, ever again.

Today, Antonio Reeves, Tre Mitchell, and Kareem Watkins would be recognized as having played out their NCAA eligibility and would participate in the “festivities” ripping through the traditional circle shaped banners bearing their name, image, and likeness. Winchester’s Brennan Canada would also be eligible but declined to participate since he went through the ceremony last year, John Calipari informed media pregame.

Although the pontification can be heard amongst various conversations from the bleachers, it feels like this game will be the final one in Rupp Arena for “Kentucky Basket God” Reed Sheppard. Most scouting experts project him to own stock in the lottery, almost certainly forcing his hand financially to make the jump. Only Reed knows, but numbers might make that a decision where he has to choose business over pleasure in the end. Either way, Kentucky fans have been treated to a magical season by the kid from just down I-75 and should soak it in while the dream for 9 is still alive.

In addition, it’s almost forgone conclusion in Lexington that Rob Dillingham, Zvonimir Ivisic, Aaron Bradshow, Ugonna Onyenso, DJ Wager, and Justin Edwards would be dawning different colors next season as well. They are going to live their dream of playing against the premier basketball competition in the world in the National Basketball Association or one of its entities.  Regardless, this team has been largely supported by Big Blue Nation and “get in” price was $50 to witness it. Unusually high for a 9pm tip-off against an underperforming Vanderbilt Commodores squad, but the BBN’s passion is known worldwide and they will do anything to see their Wildcats play. It doesn’t matter who they play.

As if this game needed any other story lines, former Wildcat Brad Calipari (yes, that Calipari) would be hoping to play spoiler in Lexington as he is on Jerry Stackhouse’s coaching staff down in the Music City.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   The Cats started with DJ Wagner, Ugonna Onyenso, along with seniors Tre Mitchell, Antonio Reeves, and Kareem Watkins. Cool moment for Watkins who has been on the team for a full-four but rarely sees in-game action. I am sure he will forever have “Starting at Guard! Number 25! Kareem Watkins! Firework explosions commence as he got to take the court through a tunnel of his teammates and had the spot light on him.

The contest was underway shortly after 9pm as the misty eyes filling the blue clad seats were still being wiped clear. They really should dust in Rupp Arena more often. Sheesh.

The Wildcats “real” line up consisting of the “Delcious Duo”, (Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard) entered the game with Ivisic shortly following Justin Edwards. The lone starter remaining was Antonio Reeves. The Cats trailed by 2 with 15:06 remaining as the first media timeout dimmed the lights to a blue haze inside of Rupp. Coach Calipari would probably consider that to be a win due to not playing the lineups that have brought him so much success as of late. Out of the timeout, Adou Thiero replaced Justin Edwards. Hopefully this lineup would stick for a while, as it had been chaos early with substitutions but that is protocol on senior day at the prep and collegiate levels. But Calipari also enjoys subbing, a lot.

The lid was on the basket early, exiting the huddle with 12 minutes remaining after the media timeout. Aaron Bradshaw went 50% on his first trip to the stripe to even it up at 11 points a side. Sheppard got involved on the next possession when he penetrated the lane and dished the rock to Wagner for a 3 that found bottoms, giving the Wildcats their first lead of the game, albeit a mere 1 point. The game started to take a back-and-forth pace when Reed Sheppard made a costly turnover where Vandy’s Ezra Manjon shot the gap and hit Tyrin Lawrence in the corner for a made 3 pointer forcing Kentucky to take a timeout with 9:12 remaining to readjust personnel to attack the now 6 point Vanderbilt advantage.

DJ Wagner was heating up as he narrowed the Vandy lead to 3 with just under 7 minutes to play from almost identically the same location as his shot earlier on the dish from Sheppard. Antonio Reeves pocketed one of his “signature” floaters with 5:44 remaining to pull the Cats within 1 point yet again. That shot is something that he worked on immensely this off season, it almost feels automatic when he puts it up now. That brought his total to 8 points. The Vanderbilt guards Manjon and Lawrence were the catalyst for the offense of the ‘Dores, calling the Kentucky defense but were sent straight to voicemail because the Wildcats had no answer as Vanderbilt led 34-31 with 2:39 to play before the teams were headed to hydrate in their locker rooms before the 2nd half. Rob Dillingham sunk 2 free throws to bring Kentucky within 1 before he found Reed for the lead to make it 36-34 on the ensuing possession. Dillingham, or Robwitdashifts on social media platforms, started to get shifty and make a difference on the offensive end, surging the blue and white to a 42-38 lead with 28 seconds remaining. Stackhouse was forced to call timeout and was met by the “Blue Rave” when Rupp Arena turns down the lights and glows blue to bumping sounds of Electronic Dance Music. UK gave up an easy layup in on their defensive end,  but Thiero found Antionio “Threeves” for a buzzer beating 3 point shot that swooshed through the nylon. That bucket gave Reeves the Single Season Scoring record for a transfer with 591 points, surpassing former Player of the Year, Oscar Tshiebwe. Congrats, Antonio! Not only was it historic, it gave Kentucky a hard fought 45-40 lead over the boys from Nashville at the break.

Something of note, Kentucky went 4-for-4 from deep right before the break. This team lives and dies by the three point shot. Their defense is obvious when you are looking for something that they need to improve on. In my opinion, they need to be taking more three point shots. Also, this group of “thieves” usually accounts for around nine steals a game. They were being great law-abiding citizens, because they had zero 20 minutes in. Their mothers would be proud, but I am sure this coaching staff was not.

Kentucky had the possession arrow coming out of the break but Onyenso was unable to convert an easy lay in. He probably should have dunked that ball. The next possession, DJ Wager turned the ball over carelessly stepping over the mid court stripe for a back-and-forth call. Kentucky must be focused out of half if they want to make a run in March. They did not show that focus 90 seconds in. It felt like Kentucky NEEDED to score first to get the crowd back into the game. Thiero picked up a foul at 17:57 left and was punished by a Jaualon Robert’s 3, only his fifth made one of the year. Edwards answered almost immediately as the “Dynamic Duo” and Ivisic checked into the game for Onyenso, Wagner, and Thiero. The fans felt like they were ready to explode, but Roberts put Ivisic on a Poster to bring Vandy back within three. Reed got started with the thievery, swiping the ball and hitting his close friend Justin Edwards for a thundering one handed slam to made the lead 5 points Kentucky. Edwards started to have the “look” in his eyes dropping another triple to widen the Kentucky lead to 8 points, 53-45. The ‘Dores put 3 on the board the old fashioned way to make it 53-48 with 15:37 before a winner could be decided. Maybe Jerry Stackhouse was drawing inspiration of his 1995 victory over Kentucky in the Elite Eight when he was a player for Dean Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels.

Kentucky was able to continue to build a lead. Rob Dillingham shifted defenders left-to-right, right-to-left, forward-to-backwards and his Wildcats responded. With only a few ticks left on the clock, Antonio Reeves was able to put layup in to bring his 20 point game steak to six in a row.

In his post game comments, John Calipari spoke highly of Reeves. Great layup shooter, mid range game as good as anyone in the country, and he’s shooting 50% from three.” Attributing his success to putting up around 8,000 shots a week and “living in the gym”. What a great story Antonio Reeves has been. I for one am very happy he decided to return to Lexington. Hopefully he can finish the ride for number 9.

93-77, nice spread.

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