By LARRY VAUGHT
PADUCAH — Coming here to recruit at McCracken County Mustang Madness just reminded Southern Illinois assistant coach Brad Autry not only about how much fans in Kentucky love basketball, but also how close SIU came to a historic win earlier this year in Rupp Arena.
Southern Illinois played Kentucky in the season’s second game — after UK had lost to Duke by 34 points to start the season. Southern Illinois had a 44-37 lead midway of the second half before losing 71-59. Keldon Johnson and Immanuel Quickley both had 15 points and Nick Richards had a career-high 19 rebounds — the same total SIU had as a team.
“We almost won. That’s the key. We almost did it,” Autry said while watching Aspire Academy of Louisville play Bella Vista (Arizona). “But it is great to be back here (in Kentucky). This is a basketball state. I love being around this area because people love basketball and I kind of have the same feeling about it.
“That was a great opportunity for us in one of those places (Rupp Arena) where basketball has a rich history. I wish we could have come out with a win but such is life.”
Autry is in his fourth year at Southern Illinois. Before that he spent a year at Hawaii after spending six years on Buzz Williams’ staff at Marquette. He admitted late in the second half he thought Southern Illinois might beat Kentucky.
“We weren’t able to get stops. They really dominated us on the glass late in the game and came away with the win. There is a reason they are thought of the way they are,” Autry said.
Kentucky’s recent resurgence has not surprised him.
“I don’t think there is any question about their ability. We knew the best time to catch them would be early in the season hoping they would not be at their best. They are hitting their stride right now and those young guys are growing up and Coach (John Calipari) does a heck of a job. They will end up being a real force before this season is over,” the Southern Illinois assistant said.
“I just thought their size was so overwhelming. Their big kids really attacked the glass hard. They were just incredibly active on the offensive glass. With their size and when they are really active attacking the rim when the shot goes up, it’s really hard to contain those guys. When I look back at that game and think if we could have done one thing better it would have been somehow to have kept them off the glass and kept that physicality from becoming such a huge factor in that game. Too bad it’s easier said than done.”
While Autry is not allowed to talk about specific recruits because of NCAA rules, he did admit that the game at Rupp Arena does find its way into recruiting conversations.
“No question about that. I got more accolades over a loss than I do over wins sometimes,” Autry laughed and said. “I had a lot of people going, ‘Wow. You guys were right there.’ I would tell them we didn’t win and they say, ‘But you were right there.’
“That’s nice but ultimately it doesn’t matter. We have to win games just like they have to win games. If you put yourself in a position to play the best and you are able to go toe to toe with them for most of the game it gives you credibility and is what builds your program. That’s what we did with that game.”