Tonight had potential to be a trap game for Kentucky. Coming off a heartbreaking loss to Texas A&M with two major players injured, the Cats had to face a hungry Alabama team that desperately needed a win to boost their NCAA Tournament resume. The Kentucky of old could have tucked its tail and ran away, but instead, the Cats got back on track and reminded us why they remain one of the most dangerous teams in the country, beating the Crimson Tide 78-53.
“Tonight was a tough night for us. Kentucky was on top of their game,” Alabama’s Avery Johnson said. “They had that fire in their eyes. They were one step faster than us, they jumped about two steps higher than us, so give them credit.”
Let’s break it down.
Alex returned with a vengeance
Coming in to tonight, we heard whispers that Alex Poythress could play, and when Alex checked in at the 17:20 mark in the first half, he got a huge ovation from the Rupp Arena crowd. After six games on the bench, Alex immediately went to work, scoring six points in two minutes, looking every bit the player that hung 25 on the Crimson Tide earlier this season. Alex finished with 14 points in 17 minutes off 5-6 shooting and 4-6 from the line.
“I was really proud of him, he probably could have stayed out a few more days but he knew the team needed him,” Cal said. “He wanted to play in that A&M game so bad because he watched them get 15 offensive rebounds. And he wanted to be in that game so bad that he said, ‘Look, I’m going to be able to go on Tuesday.'”
Avery Johnson credited Alex with igniting Kentucky’s defense, and said that if he hadn’t gotten hurt last year, Alex would be in the NBA right now. Alex only has one more game left in Rupp Arena, and in his postgame interview with Mike Pratt, you could tell that’s weighing on his mind.
“I don’t have many more left, and I’m just trying to savor the moment,” Alex said. “It’s been a long road, I’m just trying to enjoy the moment.”
Given how good Kentucky looked without Poythress the last six games, it was comforting to see that when they added him back in the mix, they didn’t miss a beat. What did Alex think when he saw the Cats beating teams by 20 without him?
“I can’t wait to get back and beat teams by 30,” he quipped.
But Isaac got the start
No one felt worse after Saturday’s loss than Isaac Humphries. Despite the infamous spike, Isaac did a lot of good things vs. the Aggies, and tonight, he was rewarded for his hard work with a starting nod. The Rupp Arena crowd gave him a warm welcome, and, in the pregame dance circle, the team had a little fun with the spike.
– Tyler Thompson (@MrsTylerKSR) February 24, 2016
“Nobody blamed Isaac for what happened Saturday. I knew he would get that kind of ovation because that’s who our fans are,” Cal said, before adding that he would have liked more rebounds from the big man tonight.
This comparison has been made before, but Calipari likened Isaac’s progress to Josh Harrellson’s turnaround in 2011.
“Isaac works so hard. He’s working like Josh Harrellson did. Remember how good Josh got?” Cal said. “This kid’s going through the same process. He’s working so hard. He runs out to work with Kenny Payne everyday.”
Jamal Murray had 23 points on his birthday
On February 23, his 19th birthday, #23 scored 23. Could that be more appropriate? Murray was 7-14 from the floor, 2-5 from behind the arc, and 7-8 from the line. Tonight was Jamal’s 7th straight game scoring 20+ points and his 13th this season. He’s hit a three in every game this season, the second longest streak in school history behind only Tony Delk (32 consecutive games).
Calipari praised Murray for his progress, but couldn’t help but give him some grief for reverting back to his old habits at the end with some showboating.
“It wasn’t a shot. It was a crossover, hit off his knee. It was stolen and going the other way,” Cal said. “It’s only one time this game.”
Given their embrace at the end, I think the two are cool:
Calipari giving Jamal Murray grief at the end for splitting a defense. “Harlem Globetrotting” Ulis called it pic.twitter.com/1yK5QEe5OF
– Tyler Thompson (@MrsTylerKSR) February 24, 2016
It’s time to start cherishing Tyler Ulis
I hate to say it, but it’s time to start cherishing these games with Tyler Ulis because there may not be many more. Ulis was outstanding once again tonight, scoring 19 points and dishing 10 assists, the fifth time this season he’s had at least 10 assists in a game, breaking the school record of four shared by Kyle Macy in 1977-78, Roger Harden in 1985-86 and John Wall in 2009-10.
Avery Johnson, a former NBA Champion point guard himself, put it best when he said that not only is Ulis a “coach’s dream,” he has a legitimate future at the next level.
“He’s a pro. He can play on the professional level. He’s probably better than a lot of the guys who are there now. He’s good, man. He can do everything.”
That’s high praise, and as much as we all want him to stick around, Calipari hinted that the LSU game might also be Tyler’s last in Rupp.
“You know it was funny when I recruited him, people said, ‘Oh, it’s nice he finally has a four-year guard.’ Sorry folks, we don’t have a four-year guard. We’re going to have another guard next year.”
Appreciate him while you can, guys.
Next up: Vanderbilt
Given the injuries and that bizarre gym, I was apprehensive about Saturday’s game in Nashville, but I feel much better after tonight’s performance. So does Calipari.
“We got really good guards. Like we have really, really good guards,” Cal repeated. “If we can shore up that front line, I like what we have here. As you know, my teams normally, as the year winds down, play their best basketball.”
We’re counting on it.