Never in the renowned 106-year history of University of Kentucky basketball, not in the 1,979 wins or the 625 losses, not by any of the 46 All-Americans, has any player had the kind of offensive night that Jodie Meeks had against the Volunteers.
The junior from Georgia burned Tennessee for 54 points, breaking the school single-game scoring record of 53 set by Dan Issel in 1970. It was the most points ever scored in Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena, and the most scored in a Southeastern Conference game since Shaquille O’Neal left LSU in 1990.
The Wildcats beat Tennessee 90-72, but they may have done more than that. Meeks might well have shot the Wildcats back into the national spotlight.
This is what it looked like to watch history from an end-zone seat.
A couple of times when Meeks let a shot fly, nobody on the court moved. They just turned and looked at the rim. Not for long. Maybe just for an instant. But long enough to see a picture of Meeks that none of them are likely to forget.
His 10 three-pointers were also a school record and the second-most in SEC history.
Or it looked like this. With three minutes left and 52 points in the book, Meeks took a bit of a forced three-pointer and, for only the seventh time in 22 shots, it bounced off. Knowing he’d taken a bad shot, Meeks, with 52 points mind you, looked to the bench and said, “My fault.”
UK coach Billy Gillispie, who detests bad shots even more than he hates the song “Rocky Top,” didn’t seem to mind.
“That tells you a lot about the kind of kid he is,” Gillispie said.
This tells you a lot about the kind of player he is. He slalomed all over Rocky Top for 26 points in the first half. At halftime, in the Tennessee locker room, I’m guessing his name probably came up. I wasn’t there, and I’m no coach. I don’t have a matching tie and highlighter. But I’m guessing that of a 15 minute halftime session, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl devoted maybe 14 minutes, 58 seconds to stopping Meeks.
It didn’t matter. In the second half, despite everything Tennessee threw at him, Meeks scored 28. He scored the first seven points of the second half and 10 in the first three minutes.
“Spectacularly magical,” teammate Patrick Patterson said. “. . . I caught myself watching him at times. Coach got on me a lot of times.”
This is what Meeks does. It’s not just that he’s sixth in the nation in scoring. It’s that everybody knows he’s the guy.
Tennessee wasn’t passive with him. It ran everybody on the roster at him. At one point in the first half, Patterson faked a handoff to him and the entire Tennessee defense shifted. Patterson held onto the ball and bounced in for a dunk. Teams shade him, they dog him. They give him the Batman treatment, tie him to a board and send him inching toward the buzz saw. Then in the next instant, he has escaped and is burying a three.
He just scores. The guy could score in a convent. His release is quick as a cat.
It was one thing when Meeks was doing it against Appalachian State, VMI or Kansas State. It’s another to do it on the road in the SEC on national television against a Tennessee team that has won 16 straight conference games in a row on its home court.
And here’s the question of the night:
Why is this guy not getting more national notoriety?
If Jodie Meeks were doing this at Duke or North Carolina, you’d have to cancel your cable subscription to keep him off the screen. You’d have to have Dick Vitale surgically removed from him.
He’d be a can’t miss candidate for national player of the year, and at the very least, a solid All-American pick.
Perhaps it’s testament to Kentucky’s recent national slippage. But I’d also expect that to change soon. Last night, he led ESPN’s Sportscenter. Get ready for some catch-up from the national outlets.
For all his numbers, Meeks’ two most impressive shots last night came when Tennessee was making a run. The Vols had climbed within 7 with 5 1/2 minutes left, when he nailed a three to push it back to 74-64. On the next trip down, he stole a pass out of the air, then hit a step-back three on the ensuing possession and Tennessee was done.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Gillispie said.
Somebody asked him where it ranked among his coaching experiences. Gillspie smiled and said, “Until he gets 60, it’ll probably be at the top of the list.”
But Gillispie was smiling for another reason. Late in the game, UK’s other players weren’t so much watching Meeks as playing off him for layups or dunks. On one possession, the defense started to converge on Meeks and he found Patterson for a lob slam.
That’s what turned a tenuous 10-point lead into an 18-point blowout.
But there’s one more thing I thought, watching from the end zone. On this historic night for UK basketball, the first stop I probably would have made before even the post-game interviews, the first stop a lot of other reporters would have made, would have been to find Bill Keightley. He’d have remembered every basket of Issel’s 53-point game in 1970. And he’d have enjoyed Meeks’ night more than anybody.
It’s just one game, of course. And there’s more to the whole thing than big scoring nights. But it had the feeling of more than just a big game. There’s a momentum with this team that makes it hard not to picture them at the top of the SEC.
Pearl said afterward, you give Gillispie a great guard and a great post player, and he can win. He has both. And he’s winning.
And Meeks might have lit up more than the Volunteers last night. He might well have lit the spotlight back on this program.