Kentucky won an ugly game on an ugly night, by beating a team wearing ugly uniforms. And the Wildcats did it by playing ugly basketball. Get used to it, says John Calipari.
UK 75, Tennessee 65, Tuesday night before a crowd that left Rupp Arena and stepped into a freezing rain. It was almost as though dark clouds were forming inside the building, the way the home team was playing before surviving against a UT squad that was wearing orange-on-orange, and hanging with the guys in blue and white.
The Wildcats eased out to a four-point lead with around nine minutes left, not unlike their advantage in the Texas A&M game, which disappeared as the Aggies finished on a 16-1 run.
This time, the Wildcats completed their task and rang up their second Southeastern Conference victory in three tries, but it was nothing to behold. And after the game, Calipari sounded resigned to a season full of games like this.
“I came to this conclusion,” Calipari said. “In the last seven or eight years, I’ve coached teams that have absolutely whomped on people.
“This ain’t one of them.”
Correct, he is.
Tennessee came into the game 8-6, on a three-game losing skid, minus talented Jeronne Maymon, who last week, the school announced, would redshirt this season. The Volunteers’ best remaining player, Jarnell Stokes, fouled out with just four points and five rebounds. And still, it was a two-possession game with 52 seconds left. This will be business as usual, Calipari predicted.
“Every game we’re in, it’s gonna be a dogfight,” he said. “And instead of going crazy, how about (I) just accept it and coach that way. I can’t imagine this team being up 20 on anybody.”
That, the coach said, is because it makes too many mistakes, as it did Tuesday night. Their performance wasn’t so bad statistically. The Wildcats turned it over just 13 times, won the battle of the boards (34-30) and shot 49 percent. But every time it seemed they were ready to pull away, they either missed free throws, went to sleep on defense or tried to force the issue on offense.
On the bright side, Kyle Wiltjer responded to Calipari’s criticisms that first emanated from the Vanderbilt game. The sophomore forward poured in a team-high 17 points, grabbed five rebounds, dished out a couple of assists and blocked two shots in just 26 minutes.
“I’ve just been trying to stay positive and work had every day in practice,” Wiltjer said. “I think it paid off. I just need to stay aggressive on both ends.”
He did on this night, as did Nerlens Noel, who turned in another sterling all-around effort, with 12 points, nine boards, six blocks and four steals in an exhausting 38 minutes. If this Kentucky team does in time learn to “whomp” the other guys, Noel, it seems will be the chief whomper. And he’s confident the Wildcats will get there.
“In time I feel that way but right now, it’s a process,” Noel said. “To get to the stage where we’re beating teams by 20, 30 – it’s not right now. We’re going to stay patient until it’s that time.”
“We have confidence in ourselves that we can break through,” Wiltjer said. “We have a lot of improving to do. I think we need that as motivation and try to stomp on people and not have any breakdowns.”
It seemed the Wildcats were on their way to a good whomping when, with 13:44 left in the game, Julius Mays drained a jumper that gave Kentucky its first eight-point advantage, 47-39. But here came the UK mistakes – a foul, a turnover, a failure to get back on defense and suddenly, the Vols had tied the game on a jumper by Jordan McRae. It was 47-all with 10:37 left.
The Cats edged back in front by two, then four, but Tennessee rallied again and when Derek Reese drained a triple, the Volunteers had wrestled away the lead, 54-53 with 7:19 left.
It would be fun to report that after that, it was all Kentucky and, indeed, Noel tied the game by hitting the first of two free throws, missed the second, stole the rebound and scored to make it 56-54. UT would tie the game at 56 but after that, the Wildcats merely crept away.
Ryan Harrow hit a driving layup and then Archie Goodwin snatched a defensive rebound and took off for the other end. The Big Blue Nation braced itself, as Goodwin had not distinguished himself on this night, forcing shots (he was 2-of-10) and playing, at times, out of control (he fouled out).
But on this possession, Goodwin drove the paint, drew the defense and dished to Mays in the left corner, who buried the three. Kentucky was up, 61-56 with five minutes left.
Tennessee chipped it to three but then Mays drained another trey and the Cats were up, 64-58. They made just enough plays to keep the Vols at bay and survive. And right now, that’s the mode for an unranked Kentucky team which, because of its 11-5 record and less-than-impressive RPI, can’t afford any more surprising losses.
A setback in its next game would be just that, but Calipari predicted another dogfight Saturday at Auburn – a team not many expected to make any waves in the SEC this year. How would they love an upset of the Big Bad Blue, down on the plains?
“Auburn is playing as well as anybody in the league right now,” Calipari said, perhaps getting a head start on the pre-game hyperbole. And he expects the Tigers’ marketing department to do everything it can to help pack the house.
“They’re retiring numbers, it’s jersey day, cup day and bat day,” he said. “It’s gonna be an absolute war for us to get down there on the road, to try to steal one.”
Whomped or stolen, any victory on the road in the SEC is a good one – ugly or not.
(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.)