Two weeks after blowing a double-digit second half lead vs. Tennessee at Rupp Arena, Kentucky kept its foot on the gas in Knoxville, cruising to a 15-point victory over the No. 19 Volunteers. Not only was this Kentucky’s first win over a ranked opponent this season, it’s the third straight for a group that desperately needs momentum to keep its postseason hopes alive. Afterward, John Calipari told reporters this was his team’s best performance of the season.
“We did some good stuff today. They [Tennessee] weren’t at their best. I know they’re better than they played, but let me just tell you, we were at our best.”
Let’s run through some of that “good stuff.” The Cats turned it over only eleven times — a few of those coming in garbage time — outrebounded the Vols by 12, and held them to 55 points on 32.1% shooting. Kentucky is 79-0 in the Calipari Era when keeping the opponent to 55 or fewer points, including 2-0 this season. In the first half, the Cats shot 60.7% from the field thanks in part to Davion Mintz’ 5-5 mark from the three-point line. Even though Kentucky only made six field goals in the second half, their defense carried them through, much to Calipari’s delight.
“We played team defense,” Calipari said. “We’re becoming a team. Can you imagine? Do you know where we were four weeks ago? Every guy trying to get theirs. I think in the last six games, we have seven guys in double figures, the last six games. And Jacob Toppin has eight points a game. So, you’ve got eight guys that are almost double figures. Are you ready? That’s a TEAM! You’re not trying to get yours; we’re trying to do this together. I’ve been begging and talking and I think sometimes you’ve got to hit the bottom before you start climbing back. But it was a good effort.”
“We’re a lot better,” Keion Brooks said. “We’re starting to come together more as a team. We’re starting to believe in one another and the coaching stuff. We’re starting to realize we need each other to win.”
Time and time again this season, we’ve watched Kentucky collapse in the final four minutes of the game. In the wins over Auburn and Vanderbilt, the Cats also blew big leads but were able to hang on. Today, they proved they can hold on to a big lead vs. a ranked opponent on the road, a huge step forward.
“We’re learning but we’ve been in a lot of close games,” Calipari said. “Could I say 12, 13 of them could have gone either way. And only a few came our way. The rest went the other way. And now, we need a win to let them know you can do this. Just throw those daggers, keep defending, keep rebounding, and you can do it.”
Kentucky is now 8-13 on the season, 7-7 in SEC play. Given the strides they’ve made in the last few weeks, let’s just hope they have a chance to keep rising.
“Again, everybody was so concerned with themselves, we couldn’t be a team,” Calipari said of the early season struggles. “We had no summer. We had no fall. We had no real exhibitions and we never came — we’re starting now. We may be running out of runway but they’re starting to become the team that we wanted to see.”