So many of them had the chance to be the hero and in the end, it wasn’t one of the precocious freshman who came through in the clutch for the Wildcats.
It was the old man who hit the free throws that allowed Kentucky to escape College Station with a 72-68 overtime win over Texas A&M, a measure of revenge over the Aggies and a second consecutive road victory in the Southeastern Conference.
Julius Mays, in his fifth year, playing with his third team, in his final season of college basketball, drained three of four free throws in the final 15 seconds of the extra period, finishing with 19 points, the most he’s scored as a Wildcat. Mays also shared some of the defensive responsibility on A&M’s Elston Turner, he of the 40-point game in Rupp Arena back on Jan. 12.
On Groundhog Day, Turner did not re-live that magical afternoon.
Archie Goodwin covered Turner at the beginning of the game, and Mays took his turn from time-to-time, making life difficult on Turner and still, he finished with 21 points. It took him 23 attempts to hit only seven and the shot he’ll remember forever is the last one, a miss, with five seconds left in overtime, his team down three.
The Wildcats tried to double-team Turner, but he worked himself free for a three-point try a couple of steps behind the arc. The shot found the middle of the hoop, rattled a couple of times and popped out, into the hands of the Wildcats. “It’s luck sometimes,” he told reporters after the game.
A UK team that still has a lot of work to do before it is comfortably off anybody’s NCAA tournament bubble has played five of its first eight Southeastern Conference games on the road, winning four. Only Florida has won as many conference road games in the SEC.
“To win on the road in overtime like we did, and have all those young guys playing – it’s a heckuva thing,” said UK coach John Calipari.
Prior to tipoff, Turner was the pre-game story line in maroon and white; Nerlens Noel the story in blue, coming off his heroic effort at Ole Miss. Against the Aggies, the 7-foot freshman, who didn’t score a field goal against the Rebels, poured in 19, including three of Kentucky’s 10 points in overtime. Noel sank a jumper in the opening moments of the extra period; from then on, all of the Wildcats’ points came at the free throw line.
Kentucky made enough mistakes Saturday that the Aggie fans in attendance (at times out-shouted by Big Blue backers) no doubt left muttering about missed opportunities. But the Cats , who turned it over down the stretch in regulation four straight times and twice more in the final 15 seconds of the second half, shot 34 free throws, making 23. Calipari has preached the importance of not settling for jumpers and getting to the free throw line, as a way of avoiding long runs by their opponents.
Still, the Aggies closed regulation on a 10-2 run, but Kentucky controlled the extra period, never trailing after Noel’s opening bucket. In fact, the Cats built a 69-63 lead when Noel hit one of two free throws with 2:27 left in OT. But this was no time to exhale.
Turner buried a trey to make it 69-66, his last points of the game – although, of course, nobody knew it at the time. After Mays missed a trey, the Aggies called timeout and out of the huddle, ran a play that seemed to free Ray Turner for an open shot, which would have cut it to one.
But this time, it was Kyle Wiltjer, not Noel, who came up with the crucial blocked shot with a minute to play, his third of the game (Noel finished with just two, along with 14 rebounds).
Forty seconds later, the Cats turned it over again, one of 18 on the game. Kentucky guarded the three-point line, so the Aggies accepted the chance at a layup, Kourtney Roberson knifing to the basket for two, cutting the lead to 69-68 with 19 seconds left.
The Wildcats managed to put the ball into the hands of Mays, who was fouled by Turner. The veteran hit both, setting the stage for the dramatic finish.
“Julius, without him, we don’t win today,” Calipari said. And it wasn’t just his offense the coach appreciated. “He did a great job on Turner.”
For Mays, it was his first chance to play Last Second Hero as a Wildcat, but he’s been there before, at his two other stops along the way. “I’ve been around college for a while,” he said, “so I’ve been in plenty of situations like that all throughout my career.”
In defeat, Turner was as gracious as he was humble following his explosive performance in Lexington. Of the Wildcats, he said, “They’re starting to gel more as a team. They’re playing with more poise than they did (against A&M in Rupp Arena).”
Winning on the road will do that for a team, no matter how young. “I just don’t know the last time a team this young wins four road games in their league out of their first five,” Calipari said. And, after a few minutes Saturday by Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky will be back to full strength on Tuesday, when the Wildcats host South Carolina.
”We’re figuring out how to win,” Calipari said. “I like that we’re young and have a chance to be good.”
But it helps to have old guys here and there, too.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)