Now that time has elapsed since Kentucky went down in defeat to Mike White’s upstart Bulldogs, it is nice to savor not only the victory, but what might come about.
Now my stance is always one of wait and see, a cautiousness that embraces conservatism, but one can sense that there are especial qualities in the makeup of one Michael Emerson White, a man whose name is as fundamentally simple as they come. Say it quickly and it sounds very much like what you would hear on a South Georgia quail plantation this time of the year, as in “Bob White.”
The man is a fundamentally sound coach who is first and foremost a teacher. Furthermore, he is a leader and a communicator. He has a competitor’s heart and the illuminating gloss of an enterprising salesman. Smooth and forever positive. When I heard about the UGA seat location plan for basketball, I knew that he was a “co-conspirator,” meaning that he had meaningful input.
I didn’t hear his pregame speech to his team last weekend, when the Bulldogs took down the Wildcats of John Calipari, 75-68. However, I am sure he told his charges not to be intimidated by Kentucky. I am certain that his reminders included something about perseverance and staying the course. His team played hard and with enduring confidence. The partisan crowd helped all it could.
“I can’t wait for him to get his own recruits,” said a veteran supporter, Mike Cheek, a loyalist with some sense and knowledgeable insights about the game. You can see that fans are buying into what is on the horizon—the Great White Way.
It was fulfilling emotionally to see the ‘Dawgs set the pace and then answer the Wildcats when they rallied to tighten the margin. Georgia finished strong in the closing minutes of the two halves of competition. That has not been a staple of the past in Stegeman Coliseum.
With 3:13 remaining in the first half, Georgia went up by seven points. Then nine. Right away, Kentucky brought the deficit down to four. In other years with superior talent and depth, Kentucky was prone to come with a run that showed who was boss. In those days, it was “turn out the lights, the party’s over.” It was different this time,
Back-to-back (a popular term in Athens these days) nothing-but-net-draining arches—trey heaven—gave UGA a 10-point lead at the conclusion of the first half. In the VIP donor lounge, elevated chatter was cautionary. “Can we hang on? Will Kentucky make any adjustments in the second half and spoil our day?” Memory was not helpful. Recall, of UGA’s history with Kentucky, can bring about a “defeatist” syndrome. But never in Mike White’s locker room.
Negative fears began to manifest themselves as the Wildcats clawed their way back into the lead, tying the game at 47-47 with a little less than 14 minutes left in the game. Then, the visitors went ahead 52-48 with 11:53 remaining. Like manna from heaven the resolute Dawgs stiffened their upper lips and showed Kentucky they are for real.
As the home team regained the lead by four points, then six, eight and ten, the clock choked the life out of the Wildcats. Calipari’s fouling tactics, which most any coach with a deficit on the scoreboard would do, were blatantly in vain.
Justin Hill, Kario Oquendo, Jusaun Holt and Terry Roberts were as accurate from the free throw line as Annie Oakley with her shotgun. The Dawgs were the victors convincingly.
What was the difference from the past? I’d say coaching.
After the good run of Hugh Durham, who was on hand to be saluted along with his Final Four team of 1983, we saw Tubby Smith love us and leave us, Jim Harrick excite us and fumble. Mark Fox worked hard but only came close but no cigar. Tom Crean’s resume turned us on, but something was amiss as he failed to be his old self.
When Willie Mays overwhelmed New York with his sparkling play in 1951, the baseball writers, led by the erudite columnist Red Smith, who said of Mays remarkable talent: “He will bring us strawberries in winter.”
I am a believer. I believe Mike White will do the same for Georgia basketball.
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