The Cats have not made it easy on themselves this season. Over and over and over again, this year’s group finds themselves in an unexpectedly-close game, trailing at halftime, or just straight up losing to an inferior opponent. It happened twice this week alone – first on the road against Vanderbilt, then again Saturday afternoon against Ole Miss. At this point in the season, is it safe to say this team is good at a comeback?
“We are used to it, but we just don’t want to be in that predicament the whole entire time,” Nick Richards said after the game. “We’d rather be up in the first half instead of being down 12 and finishing the game in the second half. That’s something we work on and something we’re going to continue working on the whole entire season until our season is over.”
“It’s definitely not something you primarily want to be good at,” Immanuel Quickley added. “You want to be up and maintain leads, but if we are down, it’s great that we can come back and get a dub. It is really good for us if we can have that.”
Why doesn’t this team blow out their opponents?
“Teams are good. We want to win by 30 every game, but teams are good,” Quickley laughed. “They scout us really good; they know our plays. You’ve just got to come out and fight and try to get a win.”
“It’s just us as a team having to come in with the right mentality from the jump,” Richards said. “The first seven possessions of the game, we got seven stops in a row, then they made adjustments. Our defense was pretty good, but our offense just wasn’t really there today.”
Two comeback victories in a row may have been hard on the fans watching at home, but it has its benefits for the team.
“You hear it all the time in the tournament – one bad shooting night, and your team is out for the season. For us to be able to miss shots and still have defense and things like that, it’s really big for us,” Quickley said. “It’s huge. Just knowing we can come out and maybe not have a good shooting night or good offensive night, but still have our defense carry over, have our rebounding and toughness carry over, for us to get a win is really big.”
Tyrese Maxey agrees.
“It’s big for us to win a game like that, [and] to be able to win without making shots,” Maxey said. “Relying on our bigs and just our penetration and on our defense.”
“I think it’s just a will to win that we have inside us,” Richards added. “Even though we didn’t play the best basketball, we found a way to pull off the win… This was probably the worst basketball game I’ve played all year, but we still found a way to win.”
That so-called will to win is the message John Calipari has been preaching to his team all season. Matchups like the Ole Miss game (and any game that ends with Kentucky shooting 2-for-22 from behind-the-arc) are the reason why Coach Cal has been so focused on the “fight” aspect of the game.
“These kids are not computers and they’re not robots. This is not a fantasy league, this is not on a computer. This is real stuff,” Calipari told reporters after the game. “They don’t play great every night, but you can play to win. You don’t have to play great every night, and you can get pushed around for three quarters of the game, but the last part of the game you play to win.”
That final push at the end is what saved Kentucky from a bad upset Saturday afternoon. With UK trailing 54-53 with five minutes remaining, there were a remarkable nine consecutive lead changes until Richards made both ends of a 1-and-1 with 1:11 remaining to put UK up 63-62. When Keion Brooks sunk two free throws with 1.6 seconds left in the game, the score was final: 67-62. The five-point victory was Kentucky’s largest lead of the game.
“It was an ugly win. We’ll take a win whether it was by one or by 30,” Quickley said. “We’ll take a win anyway we can get it.”
But just once it would be nice if that number was closer to 30, right?