Faced with their first game as an underdog and up against a team who played a similar system with the added luxury of depth and veteran players, John Calipari’s team showed stood tall and put away the Washington Huskies in a game that had the emotional feel of a March contest. With they eyes and heckles of Washington upon him, freshman forward Terrence Jones posted 16 points and 17 rebounds, along with 4 blocks, and again proved to be the Cats’ emotional leader. Brandon Knight also turned in a fine offensive performance, scoring 24 points (we’ll get to the 8 TOs later) and Josh Harrellson busted on the scene with 9 points and 14 rebounds.
In a game where Kentucky had an opportunity to grow up siginificantly and take the next step toward being a Final Four contender, they came to play. The 18-0 run early on was the work of a talented group of players. But, the resiliency in the second half and the toughness to hang on to a lead and then put the game away is the stuff that makes for a great team. A solid win for the young Cats. Tomorrow, a rematch with the other Huskies.
A couple of notes…
– Both fanbases (and both teams) had this game marked on their schedule since the summer when Terrence Jones joined Enes Kanter as Husky defectors on the UK roster and we all knew emotions were going to be high. It’s possible that it exceeded that anticipation. The crowd was as involved and rowdy as any Kentucky game I can remember and fans from both sides didn’t hide their feelings for the opposing team. And neither did the players. There were elbows, technicals, chest pounds, screams and all of the other beautiful emotional outburts that seem to come with big basketball games. There was even an earthquake. It will go down in the history books as a Maui Invitational tournament game but this had all the feel and makings of an NCAA Tournament game. You cannot understat the importance of a young team to coming out with a win in an environment like that. Big-time victory in a big-time game.
– With every set of eyeballs in the Lahaina Civic Center focused on him, Terrence Jones again played like an All-American. He finished with a sexy stat line of 16 points, 17 rebounds and 4 blocks, but it was his continued emergence as an emotional leader and a go-to guy for the rest of the team that seems to be so reassuring. One of the things that was most concerning at the beginning of the season was who the Cats could count on when their backs were against the wall. You can now comfortably say that Jones is that guy. It’s not often that a young player can do that. It’s especially uncommon for someone as emotional as Jones to be that guy. But, for now, it appears to be a very nice fit. And, I’ll say this too. There is no one in the country better at blocking three-point shots. Write it down, Goodman.
– Jones was clearly the catalyst for the UK victory, but his frontcourt mate might have been the difference. Josh Harrellson gave Kentucky 9 points and 14 rebounds in an astounding 34 minutes of play and provided the type of inside presence that everyone except NostraPrickett (he predicted it in the pregame) wondered existed. In the post-game press conference, Calipari gave a lot of credit to Jorts, who sat by his side, saying that his great effort on the boards, including 7 on the offensive end, was the difference in the game. He also added (and I’ve said this before too, so that makes me really smart) that he is UK’s best defender on the pick and roll at the moment and that really stood out against Washington, who thrives off of the pick and roll in the halfcourt. Harrellson was consistently able to stop penetration long enough for a guard to get over and still able to recover and play defense without fouling, which is a huge score for him. Calipari said that guarding that set is supposed to be his team’s achilles heel and Harrellson did a good job of making sure that was not the case. Washington coach Lorenzo Romar was not quite as complimentary. When asked to comment on Harrellson’s outstanding performance, he said, “He took advantage of not being boxed out”. This has Josh’s Twitter account, wherever it may be, fuming mad. Give the man some credit!
– Before the game, I mentioned that I thought the matchup of Brandon Knight and Isaiah Thomas was very similar to the John Wall and Kemba Walker matchup in Madison Square Garden a year ago and that it could be an opportunity for Knight to reassert himself in the national conversation. Little did I know how similar it would be. Knight finished with 24 dazzling points (Wall had 25) and struggled with 8 turnovers (Wall had 7). But, like the game Wall had a year ago, Knight showed on the national stage that he has the ablity to take over a game and play with a cutthroat mentality on the offensive end. His turnovers were the easily correctible (and extremely frustrating kind) and came on plays as simple as a perimeter pass in the backcourt. There’s no question that he has to fix those mistakes (and do something about 0 assists), but the way he played offensively was another bright spot going forward.
– Another continued bright spot was the consistent play of DeAndre Liggins, who again played his role to a “T”. Liggins got in the heads of Washington on defense, even drawing a technical foul on Venoy Overton, and played the role of under control slasher. Plus, he spent enough time on the floor securing loose balls that we might need to start calling him Vinny Tatum. His 7 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 steals only tell part of the story. Great teams are made up of talented players who can play their role consistently every night. Liggins does that as well as anyone on the team.
– With all of the Josh Harrellson love, the improved play of Eloy Vargas might have gotten a little lost in the mix. Vargas played on six minutes, but made them count in scoring 4 points and standing tall on the defensive end. After the game, which saw him receive one of the most vigorous ass slaps I’ve ever seen from Calipari, his coach spoke talked about how please he was with his play. Calipari added that he needs to get in a little better shape and that he needs to start playing like Josh. I agree.
– One guy who probably won’t get much love following the game is freshman guard Doron Lamb, who played 28 minutes (the same as Knight) and registered only six points on 2-10 shooting. While his shot wasn’t falling and he looked a little lost at times on the offensive end, Lamb did a phenomenal job of guarding Isaiah Thomas in the first half. Lamb was the primary defender on the Husky point guard for the majority of the early minutes when UK jumped out to their lead, which Cal called the difference in the game. The shots will fall but the defensive effort will keep him in the game when they’re not.
– As far as Darius Miller goes, it wasn’t an awful performance, but it wasn’t as good as we all hoped it would be after playing so poorly against Oklahoma. Miller again battled foul trouble, but he was responsible for a number of tipped passes on defense and hit a huge three in the second half when Washington was making a push. He’s still not to the point where he needs to be for this team to be special, but it was good to see him trying to make an impact every time he was on the floor. And his impact was certainly felt with 1:20 to go when he grabbed an offensive rebound and pulled the ball out like a veteran leader should.
– In the post-game press conference, Calipari summed up everything by saying that it was a great win for his team and, even though they made some mistakes like fouling after coming out of a timeout and being told not to foul, he chalks that up to being a young team. He added that the free throw woes (21-34) were frustrating, but he offered up the old Calipari sayinig that his team was able to make them when they needed them (8 of final 10) and he was happy with that. He said that he could see that they “have a will to win” and that’s exactly what you want to see.
That’s it for now. I have to watch Sons of Anarchy. Stick around all day as we get you set for the UConn Huskies and the awkward interactions between Coach Cal and Jim Calhoun. See you in a few…