The skinny, mild-mannered kid is gone.
Oh, Perry Stevenson is still skinny. Two years of burger binges and weight lifting in an attempt to give the Kentucky forward some bulk haven’t really done the trick. Stevenson’s listed weight of 192 pounds is stretched tautly over his 6-foot-9 frame, and he still looks like a withering glare from coach Billy Gillispie would send him sprawling.
Yet there Stevenson was on Sunday, scoring 18 points – many of them on emphatic dunks – grabbing 10 rebounds and swatting five blocked shots in Kentucky’s 75-70 win over Florida as the Wildcats (18-11) solidified their position during an improbable run to the NCAA tournament.
This is the same shy, tentative kid who used to treat the basketball like a hot potato last season?
Not really. If anything, the ball seems to gravitate toward Stevenson these days.
With the Wildcats up three in the final seconds against the Gators, Kentucky suddenly forgot how to beat the press. Two time-outs and two fortunate bounces after the ball caromed off a Florida player and out of bounds still hadn’t brought the ball to midcourt.
Kentucky had just missed three of its last four free throws, and another anxious finish seemed at hand. Stevenson, however, had another idea, one he wouldn’t stop sharing with his coach.
“He kept telling me, ‘Coach, get me the ball and I’ll make them,'” Gillispie said. “It’s another step in Perry’s development. He wanted that ball at the end because he was going to make the free throws.”
Stevenson leapt high in the air to secure an inbounds pass, then held on while being fouled. Two swishes later the Wildcats beat the Gators for the first time in three years and perhaps signaled the end of Stevenson’s journey from project to impact player.
“I guess it’s just wanting to win, just wanting to win for yourself and not necessarily to please everyone,” he said. “It’s coming in with a blue-collar, hard-working attitude and it pays off for you.”
Stevenson’s inspired play has helped the Wildcats overcome the loss of do-everything freshman forward Patrick Patterson, who is out for the year with a stress fracture in his left ankle. Stevenson’s long arms have made getting to the basket difficult for opponents – his 44 blocks lead the team and are seventh in the SEC – and his increased confidence in the lane has made him a threat to score when he gets the ball.
Stevenson certainly earned the respect of Florida coach Billy Donovan, who credited Stevenson’s energy and his own team’s lack of defensive pressure to Stevenson’s career day against the Gators.
“He was terrific, he was energized and he made great plays, but I’m not sure how much resistance we provided,” Donovan said.
Despite giving away an inch and 50 pounds to Florida center Marreese Speights, Stevenson attacked the basket consistently. He dunked three times and even showed off a nifty finger roll after slipping under Speights’ outstretched arm.
It wasn’t the kind of performance Gillispie expected after watching Stevenson go through “by far the worst two days of practice I’ve ever seen a guy have.”
Yet when Gillispie brought Stevenson in off the bench less than four minutes into the game with the Wildcats down eight, Stevenson hardly looked like a guy who typically takes a while to warm up once he gets on the floor.
“Usually when he comes in the game the first time, he may be taking a nap or something, then he usually comes back in and plays lights out,” Gillispie said. “But today, as soon as he got into the game he was fantastic. Five blocks, that speaks for itself.”
Call it a tenacity Stevenson developed over the summer. Desperately trying to prove to his hard-to-please coach that he was “tough,” Stevenson began shedding his timid nature during loose ball scrambles.
It’s made for some comical scenes on the floor. A typical tieup with Stevenson goes something like this: He gets his long arms on the ball then plays tugof war with an opponent. The referee’s whistle blows, but Stevenson holds on to the ball with the ferocity of a 3-year-old clutching his favorite toy.
“I am tougher now than when I first came to Kentucky,” Stevenson said. “I have matured a lot. You get a lot tougher going through practices and getting older. I thought I was tough last year, but adding another year I know I continue to get tougher.”
The Wildcats will need that toughness during this week’s SEC tournament. Kentucky will play either Georgia or Ole Miss on Friday in the quarterfinals. Kentucky, as it has been most of the season, will be significantly smaller than either opponent. Stevenson knows his job is to make sure it doesn’t matter.