Kentucky plays like winners under extreme pressure of rivalry with Louisville

first_imgMORE: Calipari SN’s college Coach of the DecadeHe did not dribble out the remaining time.”He’ll drive, he’ll dunk!” shouted Wildcats voice Tom Leach on the UK Sports Network. “Happy New Year to the BBN!”UNSTOPPABLE. @KentuckyMBB— CBS Sports CBB (@CBSSportsCBB) December 28, 2019Thus the Big Blue Nation celebrated another victory in its series against Louisville, 78-70 in overtime Saturday at Rupp Arena, the Wildcats’ 11th in the 13 meetings since John Calipari became their coach. Kentucky now owns a 37-16 advantage over the Cardinals. This one did not deliver a spot in the Elite Eight, like the one in March 1984 or March 2014. It did not mean UK had reached the NCAA championship game, like the one in April 2012. Relative to the season in which it occurred, though, it was as important as any regular-season result could be.”Before games start, I’ll accept whatever the outcome is. I’ll deal with it,” Calipari said on his postgame radio show. “I have to worry less about me and more worry about, ‘How are these kids feeling?'”If we had lost, if we played like this and lost, I would have said, ‘Guys, I know you’re crazy and we’ve got to win every game by 20, but I’m in a good way.’ But it was good for them to win, because they need to feel the success.”It was not a perfect performance for Kentucky. The Wildcats (9-3) missed several opportunities to punish mismatches that left smaller players defending power forwards Nate Sestina and EJ Montgomery in low-post situations. They waited far too long to pick up on the signal the officials sent during the first four minutes of the second half, that the physical baseline game that had been allowed in the opening 20 minutes now would be officiated entirely differently. Louisville (11-2) drew eight of the first nine fouls called in the second half by passing the ball into the post and repeating that action when the refs started calling touch fouls on UK center Nick Richards.And, perhaps most damaging of all, Hagans froze when a key defensive rebound bounced directly toward him with 2:27 left in overtime and the game still tied. After a vexing delay, he reached toward the ball with his right hand, but it was too late and too unconvincing. Louisville’s Dwayne Sutton grabbed it, and the Cards forwarded it to star Jordan Nwora for a transition 3-pointer.”If we grab that ball, maybe it’s a different game,” Calipari said. “We’ve got to call timeout now, 2:20 left, and I’m walking in(to the huddle) with 18- and 19-year-olds thinking the game is over. It’s not over. You just keep playing.”Hagans overall was less assertive in this game, less eager to attack, but he avoided charging calls that might have been waiting had he penetrated more frequently, and he directed the offense so thoroughly he was credited with assists on more than a third of the baskets he didn’t score himself.Highlights from a 78-70 OT Kentucky win over Louisville.The Cats improved their all-time rivalry series advantage to 37-16. #BBN #TGT— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) December 28, 2019The Wildcats became too dependent on jump shooting as a 12-point lead they’d built early in the second half dwindled and ultimately was usurped, but their shooters delivered to a level they’d not suggested would be possible through the season’s first 11 games.Tyrese Maxey scored a career-best 27 points and hit 4 of 5 from long range. Immanuel Quickley made 2 of 6 and scored a career-best 18. As a team, the Wildcats were 7 of 15 from deep.Most importantly, they handed the pressure of this game — most of it self-inflicted because of the Utah and Evansville losses — like winners. They were 21 of 25 from the line. Richards, a career 71 percent foul shooter, made 5 of 7 from the line, including one to complete a 3-point play that answered that enormous 3-pointer from Nwora and a pair to give Kentucky a 72-70 lead with 27.4 seconds remaining in overtime.Most impressively, they hounded Nwora into a 2-of-10 shooting performance and season-low eight points. He entered averaging 21.2, but freshman Keion Brooks and then Quickley, with help from others along the way, declined to allow him access to the ball in threatening circumstances. He never found a way into the game. Shutting him down led to Louisville shooting just 40.3 percent from the floor. “We’re not there yet. We’re a good team,” Calipari said. “We’re not a great team yet. We’ve got good players. I’d like them to become great players. I’d like us to be a great team. This is one of those years.”I think we went by the trade deadline. Did we go by the trade deadline? This is our team. This is who we have. We can’t trade ’em. This is it. So, it’s like, OK, let’s see how good we can get.”That might not be as good as Kentucky has been in the recent past. It likely won’t be as good as its most demanding fans want. It might be good enough, though, for this curious season in college basketball. The first 44 minutes, 52 seconds were mostly about trying to secure a victory the Kentucky Wildcats desperately needed. They had lost two in a row. They had lost three times in the season’s first two months. They had been conquered not by a daunting string of powerhouse opponents, but by Evansville and Utah.Those last eight seconds, though, were about their rivalry with the Louisville Cardinals, such as it is. The game was decided, though not over, when Wildcats point guard Ashton Hagans stole the ball from the Cardinals’ Ryan McMahon and dashed into the open frontcourt. He could have dribbled out the remaining time, and perhaps he would have if the opponent were not located 80 miles down the road and in the same general blueblood neighborhood.last_img

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