It’s never easy with this team, is it? Kentucky is certainly getting better at gutting out hard-fought wins as the season wears on, and the best parts of this team sometimes don’t show up until late in the game. Against LSU, things didn’t start to heat up for the Wildcats until the second half.
To start the game, the Cats shot 31.6 percent from the floor (12-of-38) and 20 percent from the three-point line (2-10). They went 3-for-3 from the free throw line.
After John Calipari dropped the mic in his half-time interview with ESPN’s Marty Smith, he must have had some strong locker room words for his team. In the second half, Kentucky went 17-23 for 73.9 percent, 7-of-8 from deep for 87.5 percent and 9-of-13 from the free throw line for 69.2 percent. That all averages out to 48 percent from the field, 50 percent from long range and 75 percent from the free throw line for the full game. UK led for over 27 minutes, while LSU had the lead for just 10 and a half minutes.
How could a team that went 2-for-10 from deep in the first half (and 2-for-22 just last week against Ole Miss) so drastically turn things around and hit 7-of-8 in the second half? Even one of Kentucky’s best three-point shooters doesn’t quite have that answer.
“I don’t know. The numbers gotta balance out eventually,” Immanuel Quickley said. “The other night, I think we went like 2-for-22 last game, so we’ll probably go like 20-for-22 next game or something like that.”
Quickley’s head coach didn’t necessarily agree with that analysis.
“Did he tell you it didn’t average itself out last game? We were 2-for-22 last game. So, sometimes it averages itself out, sometimes it doesn’t,” Coach Calipari responded. “When this team shoots it like that, I don’t go crazy. As long as you defend and are in the game.”
The fact that Kentucky was even in the game at halftime after their shooting performance at the start of the game was a testament to UK’s defensive efforts (and probably some luck that LSU wasn’t shooting the lights out, either).
The Tigers shot 31.3 percent from the floor and 30 percent from behind-the-arc in the game’s first period. Like the Cats, LSU made offensive improvements in the second half, but the jump just wasn’t as drastic as Kentucky’s. In the second period, the Tigers connected on 47 percent of their field goals, 40 percent of their three-point shots, and 66.7 percent of their free throws. Again, it was an improvement. It just wasn’t enough to win, especially once Kentucky started changing things up after the break.
“Give Kentucky credit. [Calipari] usually comes in here and runs all his pin downs and all that stuff. We were hoping he was going to run all that because we can run all that,” LSU coach Will Wade said after the game. “Second half he just said, the hell with that, we’re just going to spread them and drive them. He ran all that over-under stuff, got the mismatch and then drove the hell out of us to the front of the rim which was very, very smart. That’s why he’s in the Hall of Fame.”
There are a few things the Cats can do going forward to eliminate those first half struggles and second half deficit. Last Saturday, Nick Richards spoke about getting the team in the right mindset “from the jump,” and Tuesday night, Immanuel Quickley made similar remarks.
“I think I air balled my first shot, so that kind of threw everybody off,” Quickley said. “No matter what happens in the first half, I think we’ve been a really good second-half team all year. That’s just a credit to everybody’s toughness, all the drills we do in practice, the toughness drills… So, it’s just a credit to our hard work we’ve been doing.”
An another improvement can come from one specific individual: Tyrese Maxey. Even though he finished Tuesday night as Kentucky’s second-highest scorer (14 points), Coach Cal still hasn’t seen quite enough from the guard down the stretch, specifically referncing his singular missed free throw with :33 seconds remaining in the game.
“He’s bank missing shots that could end the game. Like, bank missing. We’ve got to get him to where he has a different mentality. That means you can make them but when that point in the game comes you’re not comfortable yet. So, we’ve got to talk him through it… But again, he’s a freshman that we expect him to be a junior. That’s what it is where we are.”
Where we are, as Calipari said, is with a team that has all of the pieces but is still learning how to keep them together for two complete halves. If they can figure out the 40-minute puzzle in time, March could be incredibly fun.