LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Elston Turner felt it during warm-ups. “I was shooting at shoot-around today. I could just feel it,” he said. “I kind of liked the rims.”
Yes, he liked them. He liked them a LOT.
The 6-foot-5 senior guard had the game of his life, pouring in 40 points as the Aggies upset the Wildcats, 83-71 in Rupp Arena. Turner was 14-of-19 from the floor, 6-of-10 from three-point range with six rebounds and four assists (zero turnovers) in 37 minutes.
“I thank God for this,” Turner said after his career-high effort. “This is something I’ve wanted my whole life, to get the opportunity to play one of the premier teams in the country. It was a great team win.”
Turner’s post-game thoughts drifted back a lot further than a couple of hours before game time. Back to pre-season workouts, when he and his teammates were training for their first season of Southeastern Conference basketball.
“We were up at six in the morning this summer, running in 110-degree weather in Texas,” Turner said. “Our coach emphasized this is what’s going to get us to the top. We knew it would be tough to go to Rupp Arena, to Florida, to Tennessee. We knew we’d have to grind in the summer.”
Grinding is what Kentucky did to claw its way back into the game. The Wildcats trailed by as many as nine early in the second half, before methodically chipping away at A&M’s lead, eventually taking a four-point lead at 62-58 with 6:12 left to play. But that’s when the young Cats fell apart.
“We were fine,” said UK coach John Calipari. “Then we took all kinds of chances on defense and made some bad plays on offense and all of a sudden, you’re reeling.”
Were they ever. Over the next 4:48, the Aggies outscored the home team 18-2, turning crunch time into crush time.
“When it’s crunch time, you don’t take chances,” Calipari said.
The run featured eight points by Turner, who had been strangely silent for much of the early stages of the second half.
“I knew (Kentucky) would come out aggressively (to start the second half). I was just trying to get my teammates involved,” Turner said. “I knew eventually my teammates would start looking for me. I had no problem with it.”
Calipari certainly did. He had warned his young players earlier in practice the day before about keeping the other team from building momentum late in a game. “Gut time, stop the runs, stop the bleeding,” he said. “And they were listening to what I was saying, but I don’t think they heard me.”
As the Aggies piled up the points, the Wildcats let their emotions sag and Turner, for one, took notice.
“I could just tell by body language,” he said. “Sometimes that shows when a veteran team goes on a run, as opposed to a young team.
“We could tell they were frustrated. When you can tell a team is frustrated, that’s when you have to step on them and come out with the win.”
They did, and they did. When it mattered most, the Cats just weren’t tough enough as a unit.
Calipari has been seeking, cajoling, begging for emotional effort and he got that at least from Nerlens Noel. The 6-foot-11 freshman had his best game as a Wildcat, with 15 points, 11 rebounds, seven blocks, six assists and four steals – with NO turnovers – in 39 minutes. He talked to the media after the game with ice packs strapped to both knees.
“I just tried to play hard tonight and give us the best chance of winning,” he said. “We came up short but us, as players, have to take responsibility. Coach Cal has done a lot for us but I think it’s time for us as players to come around and start clicking.”
The sooner, the better. With the loss, the Wildcats fall to 12-5 overall, 1-1 in the SEC just two days after escaping Nashville with a road victory. Those could be rare this season, meaning protecting the home court will be that much more vital for a young team not blessed with the strongest of RPIs right now. Calipari isn’t about to start thinking about what lies ahead in March.
“I think we’ll be fine, but you don’t know,” he said. “You gotta win games. Each game we play, you gotta worry about being the best team in the gym, and not worry about anyone else.”
The Aggies now are 12-3, 2-0 in the SEC with a victory in Lexington, one they earned by jumping on Kentucky at the start, easing out to a 29-20 lead with 7:12 to play before recess.
The Wildcats mounted a comeback, but they never had an answer for Turner, who was all but unstoppable in the first period, when he racked up 25 points – none more spectacular than the three he collected with 1:18 left.
Turner had been (relatively) quiet for the previous six minutes when he stood with the basketball, a step beyond the three-point arc, 6-foot-11 Willie Cauley-Stein in his face. The Big Blue Nation was in full throat, their team down just 31-29 and another defensive stop away from potentially tying the game.
Instead of trying to drive around Cauley-Stein, Turner simply backed away from the UK defender, who was more than happy to accommodate him. Out of range? Not quite.
Turner rose from around 27 feet and swished a trey that gave the Aggies a 34-29 lead. Fans in Rupp Arena sat in stunned silence.
UK guard Ryan Harrow said it was particularly frustrating because their scouting report included great detail on Turner’s game, which rarely included driving to the basket. “He was just knocking down shots today and I don’t believe he went to the hole once,” said Harrow, “so we didn’t do what we were supposed to do on him.”
After a circus shot by Goodwin rolled in at the other end, Turner added two more free throws with 1.4 seconds left when he was fouled in the act of throwing the ball at the basket, to give A&M a 36-31 halftime lead.
The second half was terrific theater, but the storybook ending belonged to the visitors in maroon. The guys in blue hung their heads as they left the court, fully believing they had blown a big chance to begin their home conference schedule with a win.
“(It was) very frustrating, knowing we had the lead with four minutes to go,” said Archie Goodwin. “We just have to continue to work on game time situations like that. These are the ones we can’t lose.”