Kentucky looked bad, then it looked good, then it looked bad again, then it looked good again as it narrowly escaped Texas A&M, one of the worst teams in the Southeastern Conference. In the end, the Cats defended Rupp Arena and prevailed in the SEC home opener, 85-74, to move to 1-1 in conference play. It wasn’t the start-to-finish win fans wanted to see, but it was a win the nonetheless. So be happy.
The short turnaround was good for moving on.
Kentucky’s first mid-week game since November came at the perfect time, considering the team needed a quick bounce-back from an unexpected loss at Alabama last weekend. Instead of spending an entire week to let the disappointment linger, the players were able to get back in the win column and put the loss behind them. I’m sure they were excited to get away from angry Calipari too.
Now it’s important to move forward and add another win this coming Saturday when they host Vanderbilt. But before we start looking too far ahead, more from Tuesday’s win…
The bench saved the game in the beginning.
Kentucky was scoreless in the first four minutes of the game and A&M took advantage of the sluggish start, jumping out to a very unexpected 10-0 lead. But the tables turned when John Calipari went to his reserves as Immanuel Quickley, EJ Montgomery and Second Semester Sophomore Nick Richards scored 15 of the Cats’ first 17 points off the bench and gave Kentucky a 17-16 lead, forcing an A&M timeout to silence the crowd and stop the bleeding.
All three of those guys were crucial in getting the team going in the beginning. Coach Cal even went as far to say, “Our bench won the game today.”
It looked like UK was going to run away with it, but it didn’t.
When UK jumped out to a 14-point lead just shy of halftime, it felt like the game was going to turn into a blowout. The crowd was into it, the Cats were rolling and A&M looked like a team that didn’t belong on the same floor. But then UK lost its way and allowed the Aggies to climb back in it, which drummed up groans from the crowd with each mistake and basket allowed.
The really good teams with a killer instinct close it out in that situation and win by 20+ points. Kentucky, though good, isn’t there just yet. Rather than running A&M out of the gym and back to Texas, Kentucky allowed its opponent to make it a game again. It ended up being much closer than it needed to be.
It’s a good thing Tyler Herro came to play.
During the second half when A&M was clawing its way back and threatening to regain the lead, Kentucky’s offense hit a wall. Shots weren’t falling, and when they weren’t missing shots, they were throwing the ball away when trying to force it into the post. John Calipari was livid. But every time A&M got too close, it Tyler Herro was there to save the day. When A&M cut it to six, he pushed it back out to eight with a layup. When an A&M three-pointer cut it down to five, he scored again to extend it back to seven. Then when A&M cut it to three with six minutes to go, Herro responded with a three-pointer on the other end and it never got close again. He finished with a game-high 21 points.
Ashton Hagans has the quickest hands alive.
If you’re thinking about passing it to Ashton Hagans’ man, you better think again. He is so quick to jump into passing lanes that it’s not worth trying to move the ball his direction. He disrupted several passes in this one, and though not all of them became steals, a lot of them did. He was credited for five steals in the game, which brings his total to 19 in the four games since his breakout performance against North Carolina. I don’t see that average going down anytime soon either. He’s lightning quick with elite instincts and it leads to easy points for Kentucky. It’s still early, but ya gotta think he’s a serious contender for SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
Hagans and Quickley looked good together.
Kentucky’s two point guards were two of its better players Tuesday night. Hagans did his Hagans things and also had a career-high point total for the third game in a row, while Immanuel Quickley hit all four of his shot attempts, including two three-pointers for 10 points, along with three steals, two assists and NO TURNOVERS.
They’re looking better and better on the floor at the same time, and Cal loves it. He said playing two point guards at once is the best way to play.
Calipari isn’t happy with some individual effort.
“I thought we had some guys get out-worked,” Cal said in his postgame show. “We can’t have that.”
He didn’t name names, but PJ Washington is a likely culprit, at least early in the game. Keldon Johnson may be another since he didn’t have one of his best games. Reid Travis also wasn’t playing as well as he had played all year prior to Saturday. Cal said he shouldn’t have to push guys, but he was “dragging” them to get them motivated to fight and compete.
He also questioned how his team went from being one of the best rebounding teams in the country to getting out-rebounded at home to A&M. That’ll be a big part of his message between now and Saturday.
Jemarl Baker is a player.
It wasn’t all that long ago when we were wondering if we’d ever see Jemarl Baker on the court. Now he’s playing real minutes and proving he’s more than the mysterious redshirt freshman with a pretty stroke. As Baker gets more comfortable with each appearance, he’s contributing more and more in other aspects of the game. Against A&M, his defense looked good and he was one of the only willing passers when the wheels fell off the offense in the second half. Three assists for him in the game, plus that beautiful four-point play in the corner. You have to like what you see out of him only a handful of games into his playing career.
Defense must improve.
Texas A&M’s offense is not good. I’m sure they’re nice people with kind hearts and lovely spirits, but A&M is not a team that’s going to fill it up on a good defense. So when A&M scores 75 points while shooting almost 50 percent from the field in the game, it tells me the team has some work to do defensively before John Calipari is anywhere close to happy. They’re forcing turnovers, but still giving up too many easy looks both outside and in.
There was a really bad gambling beat.
Thoughts and prayers to any bettors out there who had Kentucky to cover. A&M’s meaningless halfcourt shot as time expired moved the final score from a 14-point game to an 11-point game, which completely flipped the outcome for both sides of the opening line of -12.5. Throw in the fact Kentucky was called for a shot clock violation with under one second remaining while trying to run out the clock, and it’s an all-time bad beat. My heart breaks for you.