It was fast, it was physical, it was ragged, and it was ugly. And it occurred to at least one observer seated in the press box high above the Rupp Arena floor (blush) that the type of game unfolding between Morehead State and Kentucky Wednesday night was exactly what the Wildcats needed.
No less an expert than John Calipari said the same thing following UK’s 81-70 comeback victory.
“You got to give Morehead credit,” Calipari said. “They just came after us, got up under us, got body to body, hand checking. We needed it.”
Comeback? You mean, play from behind? Against Morehead State, voted the seventh-best team in the Ohio Valley Conference before the season began? You bet.
The Eagles came at the Wildcats in a rush, enticing Kentucky at first into settling for jump shots. An early 6-0 UK lead quickly evaporated in a 16-0 Morehead State run that saw the visitors go up 10. They later stretched the lead to 11 before Kentucky got busy, outscoring MSU 14-2 to close out the first half and take a 32-31 lead at intermission.
The Eagles by then had out-fouled the Wildcats, 13-3, and had forced six turnovers, committing only three themselves. Morehead State put pressure on the Cats in the backcourt, trying to take advantage of the absence of Ryan Harrow, the most talented point guard on the Kentucky roster.
“They’re a very young team, and no knock on Kentucky, they’re a great team and they’re going to make a run in the tournament, but we tried to use their youth to our advantage,” said Eagles forward Drew Kelly. “We knew they were young. They’re talented as all get out. We tried to use their youth to make them think, maybe they’ll pull back and not be as aggressive. But I thought they were still aggressive even with our defense.”
It was Kentucky’s aggressiveness in kind that helped the Wildcats ease away in the second half – that, and Calipari’s demand that his players feed Archie Goodwin (28 points) and Alex Poythress (20 points).
“We said, ‘We're posting Alex and we're posting Archie. The rest of you dudes get out of the way,’ ” he said. “If you want to win, you'll figure out stuff to do. This isn't brain surgery.”
No, but it wasn’t quite that simple for Calipari, who had to find a way to put his team in a position to succeed with Goodwin playing the point in lieu of Harrow. MSU coach Sean Woods, himself a former Wildcat point guard, credited Calipari for devising a strategy that helped minimize the Eagles’ pressure defense.
“John did a good job of spreading us out to where we couldn’t trap,” Woods said. “The only thing we could trap was ball screens. We couldn’t trap in our full court pressure, but we kept enough pressure on them to where they just couldn’t breathe and make easy cuts or easy passes. That’s how we were having success.”
And, he said, Calipari has minimized the amount of thinking Goodwin has to do with the basketball at the point. Just take aim at the rim and attack, something the UK coach hadn’t really planned on doing for extended minutes with Harrow set to take over at the point.
But the redshirt sophomore has yet to resume practicing with the team and in fact, left Lexington today to take care of a family matter back home. Calipari said he expects to see Harrow back with the team by the end of the weekend, but he isn’t certain.
“We all love the kid,” he said. “We want him to do well. We're trying to walk him through this.”
Whatever “this” is, it caused Harrow to miss a grand opportunity to face an up-tempo, pressure defense team. The brand of basketball Duke played against the Wildcats last week was absolute finesse compared to what Kentucky encountered on Wednesday night. And that’s OK with the coach.
“It's good for us,” Calipari said. “It's what this team needs. There are games you may be up 25, but what do you learn other than, Okay, we got nice stats and all. This is how you learn. Let a team come in and bang you around and do their thing.”
That’s exactly what the Eagles did, setting the tone and tempo early, forcing Kentucky to come from behind both in the first half and the second. And in the end, the Cats prevailed – but not before learning a valuable lesson.
“They were punching us in the mouth and we were trying to punch them in the mouth,” Poythress said. “All in all, we won the game, so that is all that matters.”
They won physical, and they won ugly, and they had to erase a deficit to do it – an experience a young team will remember as the season rolls along.
One lesson they’ve already learned: Winning is all that matters.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th year with the UK TV and radio network. He can be heard Monday-Friday on the Big Blue Insider at 6 pm ET on 630 WLAP-AM, wlap.com and I Heart Radio.)