A.J. Stewart Sticking With Wildcats After All

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- Billy Gillispie stressed following Kentucky's 19-point loss to South Carolina on Wednesday that it wasn't the end of the world.

For forward A.J. Stewart, however, it was almost the end of his career with the Wildcats.

The sophomore quit the team after playing just three minutes against the Gamecocks, then reconsidered on Thursday, Gillispie said. Stewart was allowed to return to the team after Gillispie met with the other players, who welcomed the fun-loving but emotional role player.

"Like we've all done before probably, he probably said a few things he didn't mean to say, and since that time he's had a great deal of remorse," Gillispie said. "I wish he wouldn't have said that, but he's part of our family and we move on."

It won't be easy. The erratic Wildcats (19-9, 8-5 Southeastern Conference) host streaking No. 18 LSU (24-4, 12-1) on Saturday needing a win to bolster their suddenly at-risk NCAA tournament hopes.

Kentucky seemed like a lock a few weeks ago when it appeared to be the class of a weak SEC. Yet the Wildcats are just 3-5 in their last eight games and probably have to win at least two of their final three to lock up a tournament bid for the 18th straight season.

"We definitely need to win, but I don't think it's time to panic," said guard Jodie Meeks, who spent most of the second half of the South Carolina game watching from the bench as Kentucky got blown out. "This game is very important to us, as are all the other games. But (Saturday's) game, we've got to approach it like we always do and try and stick to the game plan and play as best we can."

The Wildcats can't afford to turn in another clunker but will have to find a way to beat the hottest team in the league. LSU has won nine straight and already clinched at least a share of the SEC regular-season title as first-year head coach Trent Johnson has pushed all the right buttons.

Not that Johnson is ready to celebrate. He credited his team's success on its ability to stay grounded. Remaining humble will only grow more difficult if the Tigers can win in Lexington for only the fifth time in 44 tries.

"This time of year everybody is telling you how good you are," Johnson said. "But you need to stay focused on what's gotten you to this point."

Which means feeding the ball to senior guard Marcus Thornton (20.9 ppg) and forward Tasmin Mitchell (16.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg). Their leadership has allowed LSU to keep its head when things get tight. The Tigers aren't destroying people -- seven of their nine straight wins have been decided by 10 points or less -- but they're not making any mistakes either.

"They're able to maintain composure in the toughest times," Gillispie said. "(They're) just a real solid team that's probably as disciplined a team as there is anywhere. You know exactly what they're going to do every single time. You know exactly how they're going to execute offensively and defensively and in transition. It's a very experienced, well-coached team and that's why they've won all those games in a row."

While the Tigers have surged, the Wildcats have stumbled. Kentucky looked totally out of it for long stretches against the Gamecocks, though Gillispie said South Carolina's play had plenty to do with his team's problems.

Maybe, but for a team trying to return to its usual lofty perch atop the SEC, it's not the way the Wildcats wanted to end the most important week of the season.

"Every loss is devastating," Meeks said. "They took it to us, and it's hard to let that go."

There was, according to Gillispie, at least one bright spot amid the chaos: Patrick Patterson's anger. The sophomore center -- usually cool and collected no matter the situation -- started lashing out after the Gamecocks continually swatted away his shots. He finished with 28 points in the loss, but it was his fiery competitiveness that had Gillispie optimistic his team can turn it around quickly.

"(Gillispie) goes like, 'Finally, that's the side that I wanted to see,"' Patterson said. "He said that's the way he wants to me play, that's the toughness and the courage (he wants), the mentality of not backing down."

Even if it means running into trouble with the referees.

Patterson nearly drew a technical foul after slamming the ball out of frustration, though he received a reprieve when South Carolina's Devin Downey went to the referees and pleaded Patterson's case. While Patterson appreciated the sportsmanship, he didn't like the gesture.

"I wish he hadn't done that," Patterson said. "It shows pity."

It's a feeling the Wildcats have no plans growing accustomed to.

Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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