Big Blue shows no fear

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

DETROIT – When the Kentucky Wildcats took the court (or 50 yard line) and looked up to what Gerald Fitch described as "a whole lot of ants on the watermelon," they were supposed to panic right down their leg, weren't they?

The "watermelon" was the NFL's Ford Field, the ants numbered a world record for basketball (78,129) and the opponent was Michigan State, here in the State of Michigan's largest city. Intimidation should have been worth a dozen to the Spartans.

Instead, the Wildcats shot 60 percent en route to a 79-74 victory. Where'd the nerves go?

"We go through a lot of pressure situations being at Kentucky," said Fitch, who led all scorers with 25. "I don't think anything can affect us."

Kentucky remains Kentucky, the Big Blue standard for college basketball because it keeps doing things like this.

Saturday it was crashing MSU's Motown party, staring down a near six-figure crowd and calmly positioning itself for the top of the national polls with a 5-0 record.

This was great theater, a big game in a big dome. But when you have K-E-N-T-U-C-K-Y across your chest, you don't know stage fright. You are intimidated by no environment, no opponent.

"[We] are a veteran [team]," said UK coach Tubby Smith, whose club has won 31 of 32 games dating back to last January. "[We are] tested and hardened through the wars we go through in the SEC and the schedule we play. [We] are not intimidated by opponent or atmosphere."

Certainly not the Wildcats' fine foursome of Fitch, defensive stopper Cliff Hawkins, all-around star Chuck Hayes (17 and 12) and Erik Daniels (16 points).

This team isn't deep, isn't supposed to shoot well from the perimeter and it looks small. But is anyone playing better basketball?

In a season when every top team has found a reason to lose (No. 1 Florida lost twice this week alone), Kentucky has found only reasons to win.

The aforementioned players are all gamers, if not All-Americans – good enough and tough enough to outlast each second-half Spartan surge and control this game throughout.

Never before had a team faced more opposing fans (maybe 65,000 of them). The way UK remained calm, it was if they were in the gym alone.

"I thought our guys showed a lot of courage and a lot of heart," Smith said.

This is just what Kentucky does, football stadium full of green or not.

No one markets its program as well as Michigan State, and this was one of its better ideas. State coach Tom Izzo is big on what he calls "memory games" – those contests that will go down in a player's personal scrapbook.

Rather than tune up for Big Ten play on an diet of cupcakes, Izzo annually plays an ambitious schedule and takes his team to the game's roughest road venues or into its most unique settings.

Loading up the Detroit Lions home stadium with a huge throng for a hyped game was right up his alley. The crowd surpassed the previous world record, when in 1951 the Harlem Globetrotters drew 75,000 fans in Berlin.

So the same school that two years ago staged a hockey game in its football stadium – and set a world attendance record (74,554) in that sport also – put the court at midfield on top of a three-foot stage and let the crowd flow outward.

It was an awesome, awe-inspiring sight.

It was also something that should have scared the daylights out of the opponent. But because Kentucky is a great draw and its Big Blue Nation travels like no one else, Izzo chose the Wildcats as the opponent. Big mistake.

Anyone else may have crumbled, faded or folded. UK took State's best shot and shook it off. Izzo should have risked missing the record and brought in someone prone to jitters.

When you play at Kentucky, where the nation's most rabid fans obsess over every detail of the season, then the spotlight is always bright, the focus always intense.

It creates a mentally tough player. Which is why this game could have been played in front of a couple dozen people over at Detroit's legendary St. Cecilia's gym and it wouldn't have mattered.

"It's the reason why we came to Kentucky, to play in games like these," senior Antwain Barbour said.

Barbour is actually wrong about that.

They come to Kentucky to win games like these. And win them every time.

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