Keeping up with Kentucky

By Dominic Chamberlain

Sports Editor

When the ball was tossed in the air for opening tip-off between the Griffs and the number two-ranked Kentucky Wildcats on Nov. 13, the Griffs were undoubtedly the underdogs.

But something unexpected happened.

The Griffs did lose the tip-off and the Wildcats scored the first points of the game. Everyone thought that the Wildcats would just never look back, lead the whole game, and win in a dominating fashion like the number two team in the country should do. The Griffs had other ideas.

After Kentucky scored two points, the Griffs went on a 9 – 0 run, forcing Kentucky to use a timeout when they found themselves down 9-2. The 9 – 0 run included a 3-pointer from junior Kassius Robertson, as well as a wide-open lay-up from senior Phil Valenti.

The game was broadcast on ESPN2 in front of a national audience and, for the Griffs, this was the first time they have started their season against a ranked opponent since 1992 when they played the number one Duke University Blue Devils.

The Griffs’ early success stemmed off of the Wildcats inability to shoot the ball from range. The Wildcats were 0-7 beyond the arc in the first half while the Griffs went 3-14. Two of the three 3-pointers came from Robertson, who, along with Valenti, led the Griffs at halftime with 10 points.

The Wildcats clearly had the intention of pressuring the Griffs. Every inbound, the Wildcats were covering the Griffs, pressuring Griffs’ freshman guard Malik Johnson before he even got past half court. But the Griffs clearly were not intimidated and their poise drew high praise from the commentary team.

“This is a confident team,” said play-by-play announcer Dave O’Brien in reference to the Griffs. Then, near the end of the first half, O’Brien said, “This is an unexpected test for Kentucky.” Color commentator and former NBA player LaPhonso Ellis said during the game, “What a scrappy team this Canisius team is,” and “This Canisius Squad is playing with a lot of confidence.”

High praise for a school that many on twitter had never even heard of. “What is a Canisius and why is it beating Kentucky in basketball???” said Twitter user @EJPoore. “Canisius (my research states this is clearly a fake SIM team) gonna beat Kentucky? #Bracketbuster,” said @walkoffhbp.

They’re tweets weren’t unfounded. The Griffs spent a good part of the first half beating the Wildcats. The Griffs did a good job of moving the ball around with usually four players behind the three-point line. The Griffs were generating chances and getting open looks. It all came down to the ball movement, which was made most notable by a nice give and go play between Valenti and freshman Dontai St. Louis. Valenti got the ball down low to St. Louis and drove the lane, then received the ball back from St. Louis before adding a nice finish to the play with a lay-up.

However, quickly after that play is when the Griffs began to get themselves in trouble. St. Louis picked up two quick follows, prompting Coach Reggie Witherspoon to put Jermaine Crumpton back in the game for St. Louis. The fouls didn’t stop there, however. St. Louis ended the first half with three fouls, as well as junior Selvedin Planincic. Crumpton, Martin Dixon-Green, and Kiefer Douse all finished the first half with two fouls.  The Griffs had a total of 16 fouls in the first half alone, and Kentucky went to the line 20 times and converted on 14 of those shots. The Wildcats, however, only committed five fouls in the first half and the Griffs never shot a free throw in the first half.

When the buzzer blew to end the first half, following a beautiful Kentucky alley-oop, the Griffs were down by nine at a score of 35-44. Those 14 points seem to stand out more now, especially considering that the Griffs were leading for a good portion of the half.  

The other major factor in the first half for the Wildcats was their sophomore Isaiah Briscoe. Briscoe finished the first half with 17 points; the next closest Wildcat was freshman De’Aaron Fox, who had eight.

Although down nine at half, the Griffs, for all intents and purposes, seemed to still be in the game. Kentucky had one more rebound, the Griffs had four more assists, and the Griffs shot 45.7% from the field while the Wildcats shot 45.5%.

The Griffs were keeping up with the number 2 team in the country.

But the second half was a totally different story. Kentucky came out and looked like the second ranked team in the nation. More alley-oops, they finally hit some three-pointers, and the rest of Kentucky’s feared starting line up caught up to Briscoe.

Fox and Briscoe both finished with 21 points while the rest of Kentucky’s starters combined for 32 points.

The positive for the Griffs was Crumpton. After finishing the first half with only two points, “Crump” scored 11 in the second half, clearly having more confidence with his shot in the second half.

The Griffs struggled to keep up with Kentucky’s speed, and it didn’t help that the Wildcats finally started making shots from range. The Wildcats in the second half finally looked like the better team.

The final score was Wildcats 93, Griffs 69. The final score wasn’t exactly representative of how the Griffs played; keeping up with the number 2 ranked team in the country for a whole half isn’t something to sleep on.

Perhaps the most promising thing for the Griffs this game was the play of freshman guard Malik Johnson. Johnson, in his first collegiate game, was tasked with running the Griffs offense against the Kentucky Wildcats.

Not only did Johnson run the offense, he looked like he had been running the offense for years. “I’m impressed with number 1 in blue, Malik Johnson… how he sees the floor,” said Ellis.

Last season, the Griffs enjoyed Malcolm McMillan running the offense and doing it well. If Johnson can play like he did in the first half over the course of this season, the Griffs may have yet another confident guard running their offense.

Although it’s a loss, the Griffs definitely have positives to take out of this game. The Griffs kept up with the Wildcats for a whole half and the positives of that half are what they are certainly want to build on throughout the year.

The Griffs, at the very least, showed they can compete with top teams. Now the challenge shifts to spanning that over two halfs and not one; should the Griffs do that, they could be a major force in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

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