TOM DAVIS: Fort Wayne loses a battle, but wins a basketball war
LEXINGTON, Ky. – With just under 4:00 remaining in the first half of Fort Wayne’s men’s basketball game against No. 8-ranked Kentucky Wednesday, the Wildcats had dominated the Mastodons in terms of shooting (they were hitting over 70 percent of their shots) and rebounding (Kentucky took a 19-7 advantage into the intermission), so quite frankly, it was a basketball miracle that some how, some way, the Mastodons had found a way to hold a 37-36 lead at that point.
“Let me say this about Fort Wayne,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said following the game, “how well are they coached and how do they play to their strength, which is drive the ball and shoot threes?”
That Fort Wayne did.
Mastodon junior shooter Kason Harrell buried multiple long shots early to keep Fort Wayne in the game, but eventually the talent level, but mostly the athleticism and length of Kentucky, proved too much and the Wildcats won going away 86-67 in front of 20,645 fans at Rupp Arena.
It was a defeat for Fort Wayne that fourth-year Mastodon coach Jon Coffman called “disappointing,” however, that shouldn’t take anything away from the fact that his team showed tremendous potential, which will prove to be far more relevant in the Summit League in a month or so than it was Wednesday.
“Well, the fact that I don’t think the environment really affected us,” Coffman said of what he took as a positive from the game. “You know, I think the guys played with poise through that. I mean we came out with an attack mentality. You know, there was no fear in our guys.”
There wasn’t which should worry the rest of the Summit League.
The Mastodons spread the floor and did what they do, which is move the ball at a harried pace, making it swing from side to side, into the post and back out, and then back around the perimeter, all in search of a great shot, not just a good one.
That ball movement had Kentucky on its heels defensively to the point that Calipari finally relented and said ‘Forget this, let’s just go zone.’
The Mastodons (3-2) did a lot of things exactly the way that they had planned and 20 minutes into this game, the Big Blue Nation certainly was feeling a bit, well, blue.
“They’re a veteran team,” Calipari said. “They have a little bit inside. But the thing is, they’re going to take, they took 37 three-point shots. When you play a team that’s willing to take 37 three-point shots, you got a chance of losing because they can make 20. Now you lost the game.”
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Truth be told, even when Fort Wayne had Kentucky reeling a bit, there really wasn’t any legitimate chance that the Wildcats were going to “lose the game.”
What the Wildcats were doing at will: driving, elevating over Fort Wayne defenders for easy shots, and rebounding any misses with abandon due to an absurd amount of length, none of those things were going to change throughout the course of the game. However, Fort Wayne connecting on 3-pointer after 3-pointer after 3-pointer, well, that had to slow at some point. And it did in the second half.
“It’s a tremendous tradition here,” Coffman said, “It is such an incredible environment and beautiful facility. I don’t think it had any effect on our guys. That was a phenomenal feeling to watch our guys, just the poise.”
“Now, the players on the team that did affect the game. Kentucky has good players.”
Some would say the Kentucky players are great, not good. But what isn’t debatable is the fact that they are long and there was no amount of coaching or scheming that the Mastodon coaching staff could have concocted to diminish that fact.
The average wingspan of the scholarship players for Calipari is 6-foot-10 and seven of them have wingspans of 7-feet. IN addition, Kentucky has the fifth tallest roster in the country. So, the fact that the Wildcats held a 44-22 advantage in points in the paint and a 44-21 margin in rebounding shouldn’t surprise anyone.
“They created some obstacles out there that were very difficult to overcome,” Coffman said. “We knew coming into the game rebounding was going to be a challenge.”
Coffman said that any success that his team had was a positive, but he also talked about “learning from failure.”
“There were some areas that we failed in today,” Coffman said. “We didn’t play well against the zone and those are some areas that we’ve been really good. That’s an error. We failed there.”
Coffman was nit-picking at that point.
Fort Wayne lost the battle Wednesday to a team that it simply could not match up with physically. However, make no mistake about it, the Mastodons won the war, because they demonstrated the ability to play a smart, skillful, well executed game, all of which will result in a different outcome in January than it did in Lexington in November.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.