If there was ever a time to drop one in Rupp Arena, this was probably it.
Texas A&M, a top-five team only two weeks ago, was back to full health and hungry for win. Sitting at last place in the SEC as the only winless team in the conference, A&MÂ neededÂ a win to salvage its spot as a contender in the league.
Its chances were helped by the return of D.J. Hogg, the team’s leading scorer, who was back in the lineup after serving a three-game suspension for a violation of team rules. Robert Williams, the team’s star and projected NBA lottery pick, was back after an illness kept him out of the home loss to LSU. Admon Gilder, A&M’s third-leading scorer, was back after missing five straight games with a knee injury.
The A&M team that was ranked fifth nationally was back together; the dismantled A&M team that dropped three games to open SEC play was a thing of a past.
The Aggies were ready for a statement win.
Meanwhile, Kentucky was just the opposite. Already down two scholarship players for the year, the Cats were also without Tai Wynyard, who has been out with a back injury. But the biggest hit to the rotation came with the surprising news that Quade Green would not suit up. It was announced about a thirty minutes before tip-off that UK’s starting point guard was unable to go due to back spasms, leaving only two guards in the Kentucky backcourt.
Beat a healthy, desperate, motivated A&M team with only seven scholarship players available?
As I said, if there was ever a time to drop one in Rupp Arena, this was probably it.
Kentucky held court, though; defeating A&M in a tight one, 74-73. P.J. Washington was the shining star inside for the Cats with his 16 points against one of the best frontcourt defenses in all of college basketball. Hamidou Diallo also scored the ball well on the wing, chipping in a team-high 18 points of his own with an efficient 6-of-9 night from the field. Kevin Knox got back to his old ways with 16 points on a perfect 5-for-5 night, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had 16 points, seven rebounds and five assists in his third career start at point guard. You mathematicians can see those four combined for 66 of Kentucky’s 74 points. Not bad.
But where the Cats really shined was on the glass and in the paint, which was not the case the last time out in the loss at Tennessee. Texas A&M is ranked second in the entire country in rebounds, led by the duo of Davis and Williams, who are ranked first and third in the SEC in rebounds per game. Kentucky, on the other hand, has the reputation of being too soft inside. Just this past weekend, Calipari called out his team’s toughness, saying other teams watch the game tape and say, “Just throw these guys around. They will not fight you back. Just throw ’em and post ’em hard. Go right at them. Don’t fade away. If a shot goes up, bum-rush them. Go rebound a missed shot. They’re going to let you run by them.”
“We have a toughness issue,” Cal admitted. “It’s something we’ve gotta fix day-to-day. That’s all it is. It’s a day-to-day thing. It’s a process with these guys. I hate to say it, sometimes you gotta get hit in the mouth to learn.”
It’s safe to say they learned from the punch in the mouth at Tennessee because Kentucky out-rebounded A&M, and scored more points in the paint — two of A&M’s biggest strengths.
As for the rest of the game, the zone defense looked MUCH BETTER than it did in the loss to the Vols, and it was important because man-to-man wasn’t working. Cal said afterward, “Thank goodness I have Tony on the staff. He taught me some zone stuff, and I have the courage to do it.”
Kentucky also hung tight while needing quality minutes from Brad Calipari when foul trouble struck in the first half. The lineup of Gilgeous-Alexander, Calipari, Gabriel, Richards and Killeya-Jones is one you probably didn’t think you’d ever see, and probably hope to never see again.
In the second half, the teams traded jabs until the very end, when it turned to a battle of who wanted toÂ loseÂ more, as both teams made crucial mistakes in key moments. Missed free throws. Fumbled balls. Missed assignments. The final minutes had it all; however, Kentucky’s winning plays outweighed A&M’s in those final minutes, which was enough for the win.
(And let’s not address the final two seconds and whether or not Wenyen Gabriel fouled Tyler Davis.)
There may be a time to drop one in Rupp Arena, but this wasn’t it.