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February 13, 2010The critics of Kentucky's talented, but inexperienced, basketball squad have long held the contention its youth would ultimately sabotage them when it matters most. For 30 minutes the contrarians appeared to be prophetic.
Then John Wall and Eric Bledsoe answered the questions.
The Cats' dynamic freshman backcourt came alive over the final 10 minutes as UK (24-1, 9-1) suffocated Tennessee down the stretch, pulling away for a gritty 73-62 victory in front a thunderous crowd of 24,402 Rupp Arena denizens. Wall and Bledsoe scored 23 of the Cats' final 25 points and engineered a 20-4 run that squeezed the life out of the Volunteers after the Big Orange had claimed a 52-50 lead with 10:13 remaining.
"We know that age isn't a factor," UK junior forward Patrick Patterson said. "We know Eric and John are two tremendous talents that play with a lot of heart and passion. For them to step up and play at the level they have been, to stay calm, cool and collected just shows their poise. People throw age and experience around as a factor but it doesn't matter. They don't get fazed, shook or rattled."
Bledsoe was particularly iron-willed, scoring all 16 of his points in the second half after pulling himself from the game during a listless first half. The typically defiant guard received an edict from UK coach John Calipari - shoot the basketball and play with confidence or come have a seat on the bench.
The demand turned out to be just the spark Bledsoe needed. Having gone just 4-of-21 from three-point range since his career game at Florida the 6-foot-1 freshman calmly cashed a trio of triples in the final 13:17 to crush Tennessee's hopes of an upset.
"Coach was telling me all game that if I wasn't going to shoot I wasn't going to play so I had to have confidence and knock those shots down," Bledsoe said. "It was a good release and knocked a lot of pressure off my back."
"Eric showed so much courage in what he did and how he played," Calipari added. "I told him if he won't shoot it I'm taking him out. You've got to shoot it. If you don't shoot it they're playing five versus four, which is what happened in the first half. He didn't want to shoot it so I told him it was my job to take him out and his job to shoot it. He's a tough, hard-nosed kid who wants to win. He just has a will to win."
UK needed every ounce of heart and determination Bledsoe, Wall and the rest of the Cats could muster thanks to a frustrating 3-2 zone Tennessee employed that had Calipari scrambling at halftime. Having not seen Bruce Pearl's squad use the defense all season Calipari did not practice an offensive counter, thus Tennessee was able to stifle UK for 30 minutes.
That's when Wall and Bledsoe responded, moving one step closer to answering the one criticism of the Cats' national championship aspirations. After Wall and DeAndre Liggins helped UK claim a slim 60-56 lead, Bledsoe buried back-to-back threes from the corner and hit a pair of free throws to close out the Volunteers.
"You pick your poison so if you've got a chance to come in here and get beat by Eric Bledsoe instead of (DeMarcus) Cousins and Patterson that's the risk we took."
As they've done most of the season, the Cats' sometimes frustrating yet always game, freshman backcourt came through when the stakes were highest.
"We have that fight," Wall said. "Teams make runs so we didn't let their run get too big, made a couple of stops, took some charges and Eric hit a couple of shots for us to get our run started.
"I think we've answered (the questions) but we've still got room to improve. We are proving people wrong but we haven't proved anything until we get where we want to be."
Matt May is the basketball beat reporter for The Cats' Pause. If you have questions or comments about the Cats e-mail him here.