Staring down the barrel of a roaring Rupp Arena and energized Kentucky, Virginia Military Institute didn't blink. The Keydets face a far tougher environment when they rise before dawn each and every day.
The Keydets watched Kentucky wipe out a 23-point second half deficit before gathering themselves in the eye of the storm and outscoring the Cats 16-6 over the final 4:06 to pull a stunning 111-103 victory. It is the second consecutive season the Cats have been knocked off by a small school in the first week of the season on their home court.
"We lost. I can't say it any better than that," UK forward Perry Stevenson said. "We knew coming in they were a good team and what happened last year to Gardner-Webb we didn't want to have happen again."
Oh but it did.
VMI stormed from the barracks (locker room) and knocked the Cats back on their heels from the outset, much like Gardner-Webb did last season. Thriving on dead-eye three-point shooting (VMI hit 14 three-pointers in the game) and suspect defense by the Cats, the Keydets jumped to 19-5 lead in game's first four minutes and never relented.
"On the bus ride up here we watched the Gardner-Webb tape," VMI guard and Lexington native Michael Sparks said. "We knew coming into the game that we had to go right at there and attack them. We got up on them and never looked back."
When Keith Gabriel stroked a wide-open three (and there were an inordinate number of those) from the top of the key with 14:04 remaining VMI had its biggest lead of the night at 83-60. Sensing it was now or never, UK unleashed a furious 37-12 run to claim a 97-95 edge.
The lead last just 44 seconds. The only 44 ticks the Cats held the advantage all night.
Willie Bell scored on a putback to tie the game before Austin Kenon, a three-point specialist, buried a triple from the corner to give the Keydets a 100-97 lead with 3:50 remaining.
"I was trying to help and Coach (Billy) Gillispie told me not to leave him so it was a mental breakdown for me," UK guard Jodie Meeks said. "It happened once but it was a big play, those three points meant a lot."
It was one bad play in a career night for the junior. Meeks shattered his career-high with 39 points, including 14 during the Cats' huge run, but was held scoreless over the final 7:27 of the game when VMI switched to a box-and-one defense to help contain him.
"He was playing his heart out," UK coach Billy Gillispie said. "He was really spectacular. He did a nice job on No. 10 but made one mistake in the second half as far as leaving him. He was pretty much the only thing we had that was consistent, but it's not going to work when one guy scores 39 points."
UK pulled within 104-103 on a Patrick Patterson post up (part of an underwhelming 8-point, 7-rebound effort) but Travis Holmes hit a spinning fade away with 1:46 left before Meeks missed a wild drive to the basket against the press. UK never got any closer.
"They whipped us," Gillispie said. "They were more physical than us, they got all the loose balls, they rebounded in a timely fashion better than we did and executed much better than we did. That's my fault. They played really hard, played really well, I knew they would.
"I don't like getting whipped too much and we got whipped."
Matt May is the basketball beat reporter for The Cats' Pause. If you have questions or comments about the Cats e-mail him here.