West Virginia brought the noise to the WVU Coliseum on Saturday night when your University of Kentucky Wildcats came to town as 10-point underdogs. The place was rockin’ unlike anything we’ve seen in our own Rupp Arena, and it fueled the Mountaineers to a great start in the game. Fans were loving it and ready to tear the place down as the Cats struggled in the rowdy environment.
But then the comeback happened and those country roads took them all back home.
1. West Virginia kicked Kentucky’s tail up and down the court in the first half.
Before we get to the exciting stuff, let’s take a brief moment to acknowledge how bad things were before halftime. The Cats had 10 turnovers in the first 10 minutes of the game — TEN! — and gave up 48 points to the Mountaineers in the first half, led by Old Man Jevon Carter with 18. It looked as if UK was going to get completely run out of the gym and sent back to Lexington with an embarrassing defeat in ESPN’s biggest game of the day, and many of you threw the season away. Don’t lie. I seen’t it.
2. Kentucky clawed back in an amazing turn of events.
The second half was a different story, obviously, as UK out-toughed the toughest team in college basketball on its own floor. Kentucky made play after play to turn a 15-point halftime deficit into a lead with 10:35 left in the game, and it seemed the only way West Virginia could get a basket was by heaving a three-pointer late in the shot clock, which worked way more than it should. But Kentucky was the dominant team in the second half, which it won, 50-28.
3. Kevin Knox had his breakout game.
Kentucky had several guys play well, but the unanimous MVP is Kevin Knox for his superstar performance. Knox gave West Virginia fits from the moment the game started and he didn’t quit until the final horn had sounded. He finished with a career-high 34 points and there wasn’t anyone this side of Tudor’s Biscuit World who could do anything about it. He was unstoppable, but even better: he showed more emotion throughout the game than he’s shown all season long. He was talking trash to anyone and everyone in his way.
Cue the big ball dance.
4. Nick Richards was frustrating, and then he was awesome.
The first half version of Nick Richards made some major mistakes. You can admit it: you wanted Richards to go to the bench and never turn. I did too. But the the second half version of Nick Richards was great and Kentucky doesn’t win that game without him. He made four straight free throws when Kentucky was down four and his put-back dunk sealed the deal in the final minute. Huge game for the big guy and there isn’t a player on the team who needed it more.
5. Hamidou Diallo, also awesome.
Aside from the one assist to the other team, Diallo played great. He was Kentucky’s only other double-digit scorer with 13 points, and he played his best defense of the season when Calipari needed someone to put the clamps on the West Virginia guards in the second half. And how ’bout that three-pointer to keep the comeback rolling?
6. Other than Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and PJ Washington, everyone played great.
Knox, Richards and Diallo earned their own bolded sentences in this recap, but you can also give a round of applause to Wenyen Gabriel and Quade Green. Gabriel was so important in finishing the game down the stretch and Green was the steady hand against Press Virginia. Then there’s Jarred Vanderbilt with 11 rebounds in 11 minutes, and Sacha Killeya-Jones did some good things too.
Washington and Gilgeuous-Alexander were the only two you can be a little critical of, but they weren’t terrible. It was a good all-around performance by just about everyone in blue, once they weathered the storm of course.
7. Kentucky went 18 for 18 from the foul line in the second half.
How’s that for efficiency?
8. West Virginia was hitting some crap.
It seems wild to say Kentucky should’ve won by more in a game West Virginia led by 17, but Kentucky’s defense was so good in the second half that West Virginia was having to hit some prayers. There were several possessions when the Cats played lockdown defense for 29 seconds, only to watch a Mountaineer heave up some garbage that went in. Beetle Bolden, a Kentuckian, was the guy hitting most of those; he finished with 17 points off the bench with five made three-pointers. But UK made them fight (and wish) for every basket.
9. The win will go a long way come tournament time.
This wasn’t a must-win game for Kentucky, but the win is huge for the tournament resume. UK finally has the marquee win it lacked and, hopefully, it will spark a run for the months of February, March and beyond. Could this be the turning point for Cal’s young team? We sure hope so.
10. Coach Cal should keep wearing the pullover.
Numbers don’t lie and numbers say Kentucky is 1-0 when Cal wears the pullover.
When asked if he’d consider it again, Cal said after the game, “You know what, I might. I might. It’d be nice to travel this light.”