(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
It had been a while since the Cats played an actual game, and boy, could you see that in the first half. In true Kentucky fashion, the Cats stumbled out of the gate again tonight, but rallied behind a strong performance from the bench to put away Mississippi State by a final score of 85-63. Here’s the bad and the good of it all.
Another awful start
Maybe the team was still wrapped up in the fun times of Camp Cal. Maybe the Louisville game went to their heads. Or maybe they were just rusty after the long break. Regardless of the reason, Kentucky looked straight up awful for the majority of the first half. Mississippi State jumped out to a 12-2 lead, and the Cats didn’t score until the 15-minute mark. They were listless, slow, and submissive to a smaller Bulldogs who led 40-37 going into the half. After the game, John Robic (stepping in for Cal, who went to be with his son, Brad, who underwent ACL surgery yesterday) said that the Cats “settled” in the first half, and weren’t mentally ready for the game:
“I think we were rusty. Having 13 days, even the players were like, ‘We finally get to play a game.’ It’s just the way the schedule went, but I do think that we were a little bit rusty. We’re in game shape, but we weren’t ready for the game when it started. And it took us some time.”
Of all of the team’s bad habits, slow starts could be the worst. Or free throws, but Cal says not to worry about that.
Julius Randle’s reaction to double and triple teams
Mississippi State followed through on their promise to double team Julius Randle early and often. As a result, Randle had a relatively quiet night, tying a season low with only seven field goal attempts for eight points. However, he’s still Randle the Reliable when it comes to rebounding, grabbing 14 boards. Julius was even triple teamed at times tonight, and in those situations, needs to kick it out more often to his teammates, who are more often than not wide open. Robic lamented about that after the game:
“First off, he has to catch the ball tighter, no question. If he sees space, he has to take it. If they are going to send two or three players at him, he has to sacrifice himself for the betterment of the team, our players are finally understanding to be in certain spots on the postâ€‘ups.”
James Young’s got to be starting something
Young notched his second straight double-double, with 26 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists. Fifteen of those points came in the first half, when the Cats needed offense the most. At 8-18 from the field and 3-10 from behind the arc, James missed a lot of shots, but at times early on, he seemed like the only player willing to start things offensively. Robic said that James always has the green light from the staff to let ‘er rip: “I can’t think of any of the 18 shots that were bad or forced shots. James is a scorer. If he has it going, he has it going. He has that green light to shoot the ball.” Robic also praised James for playing a “complete game” and talking more with his teammates, something he noted the entire team is doing better after the break.
Dominique was Dominique
How can you not love Dominique Hawkins? In what is becoming his trademark, Dominique came in early in the first half and infused the team with energy, attacking the basket and taking advantage of open space. Mississippi State failed to guard him, so Andrew Harrison encouraged him to shoot. Robic said that Hawkins is the type of player that does everything the staff asks him to do, brings hustle, and always defends well. In short, he’s a coach’s dream: “He just brings an energy that you have to find time for him on the floor and that’s why he’s out there.”
We all owe Marquis Estill and Cal’s dentist a big thank you.
Dakari Johnson had his best game yet
Matt nailed it today when he predicted Dakari Johnson would have a big game. Dakari was ridiculously efficient tonight, scoring eight points in eight minutes off 4-4 shooting. After the game, Robic said that tonight was “the first signs of Dakari actually finishing plays,” and said the game was huge for the big man’s confidence. When the matchups are in his favor, Dakari can be dominant down low, and even though he’s not as athletic as Willie, he did manage to get one of the slowest and lowest lobs in UK history tonight.
Alex didn’t play, he dunked
All we’ve heard lately is how well Alex Poythress has been playing in practice. It’s been a major headline in the past few weeks, with Cal calling for Alex to carry that performance over to games. Well, he did. Alex looked like a totally different player tonight, with all five of his field goals dunks. Alex finished with twelve points in what may have been his most complete game in recent memory. Robic raved about Alex after the game, telling reporters that the sophomore’s confidence is at “an all-time high,” and Alex said that he’s happy to be making “the plays you always dreamed of” making at Kentucky. Based on Alex’s performance tonight, James Young may have put it best when he said “I guess you could put him anywhere on the court you want and he’ll catch a lob.”
More second half, less first half on Saturday, boys.