Frank Martin was talking about boxing. His team had just taken a good shellacking by Kentucky, 76-48, in a game of basketball. But a man who looks as though he might have gone a few rounds in the square circle himself already had used a boxing analogy three times.
“Any time we play a team with physicality,” he said, “we haven’t answered the bell all year.”
In other words, the Wildcats squared off with the Gamecocks and punched them in the mouth. South Carolina never responded. Martin was trying to explain why he kept going back to the same word in his answers to nearly every question.
“ ‘Physicality’ is manning up,” he said. “Like, if you’re a boxer. You go in the ring, you’re gonna get hit in the face. If that bothers you, you’re never gonna be good in the sport.
“When you play in a basketball game and you play in a physical game, you’re gonna get hit. If you run away from it, run around it, the opposing team smells it and once a physical team smells it, they’ll keep coming at you.”
Which is precisely what the Wildcats did, attacking on defense with the same tenacity they had shown in their previous eight games – all victories, in a streak that’s now reached nine.
On offense, they pounded the ball into the low post, forcing SC star forward Chris Silva into two quick personal fouls and harassing him on the other end as well.
South Carolina hit some early shots and made a game of it until the last seven minutes of the first half, when the Cats finished with a 17-4 run and a 39-28 lead.
The second half was more of the same, although to hear Kentucky’s coach tell it, the pugilists in garnet and black landed some body blows of their own.
“You’d better be ready to play,” John Calipari said of a matchup with SC. “You’d better be physical.”
Martin may not have seen the level of physical toughness in his team that he needed this night, but the guy at the other end of the sideline was impressed with what he saw from South Carolina.
“When you’re moving into ball screens and you’re getting whacked… the only difference was, Reid (Travis) was out there whacking, too.“
Travis, hampered by two early fouls, played just 22 minutes, finishing with 11 points and nine rebounds. But it was his defense (played physically, of course) that impressed his coach.
“Without Travis, Silva probably goes for 25 and 11,” Calipari said. “He’s exhausted. We’ve got him in there on an IV. He and Silva went at each other.”
With March now less than a month away, Calipari’s team is climbing his self-proclaimed mountain and what’s helped elevate this group, as usual, is defense. His best teams down the stretch have played it with joyful abandon.
“This team is getting it,” he said. “Thank goodness we have Travis on this team. Reid… he’s a beast. He is a beast.”
He’s also a fifth-year beast, who learned the value of playing great defense at a fairly stout institute of higher learning, a place called Stanford. His young teammates are coming around to the same lesson.
“In order to win, we are going to have to defend,” said redshirt freshman Jemarl Baker. “In order to win the championship, we are going to have to defend and be great defensively.”
A grizzled veteran in his second year is P.J. Washington, who turned in another strong showing with 20 points and five rebounds in just 28 minutes. And, oh yes – he guarded as well. “Without our defense, I don’t think we would be on a nine-game winning streak,” he said. “We’re stopping teams and forcing them to get out of their game plans.”
SC hasn’t been the only victim. During the current winning streak, the Wildcats have held six straight opponents to 63 points or fewer, which hasn’t happened since November of 2015.
They’ve also held seven of their last eight opponents to under 40 percent from the floor. And they out-rebounded the Gamecocks 50-27. As Frank Martin will tell you, that comes from being more physical than the other guys.
A career-high 13 of those rebounds belonged to freshman forward E.J. Montgomery, who also tossed in 11 points. He was ready for SC’s brand of play.
“That’s what the game plan was,” he said. “To go out there and play physical and just hit first before they hit us. That’s what we did.”
And that’s why the Wildcats scored a convincing knockout.