Johnson the offensive spark Cats needed vs. Utah

In no way did Rupp Arena resemble the Alamodome Saturday night.

Sure, it was Kentucky versus Utah, 20 years and a few months after the Comeback Cats erased a 10-point deficit and beat the Utes in the NCAA championship game under Tubby Smith. But this one? It was no trip around the Big Dance floor.

The Wildcats faced the Utes in four of six seasons in the NCAA tourney from 1993 to ’98, winning all four. There was even a tournament matchup in 2005, when the Cats won, 62-52. In that game, after a play, Kentucky guard Ramel Bradley challenged Utah’s all-star center, Andrew Bogut, by going chin-to-chest and snapping, “That all you got, ____?” It was a word that rhymed with “witch.”

No, it wasn’t that one. But it also wasn’t the 1947 National Invitation Tournament title game, back when the NIT out-paced the NCAA when it came to basketball tournament relevance. That one, Utah won, upsetting Adolph Rupp’s Wildcats, 49-45.

Utah fans celebrated that night. On this one, it’s doubtful they believed their struggling team could come to Lexington and pull the upset and, save for the first four minutes, it was never in doubt.

The Utes watched Kentucky score the first basket and then ripped off 10 straight points. That would just about do it for any sign of Utah dominance. Shots began to fall for the guys in blue and white.

They poured in 58.6 percent for the game, 12-of-21 from beyond the arc. The frigid hand they tried to play last Saturday in Madison Square Garden was long gone.

Keldon Johnson was the hottest, the soonest. He hit his first triple three and a half minutes into the game and his next one four minutes later. Utah played zone, his teammates were feeding him so why not? He kept shooting.

Johnson hit his first five from beyond the arc, missing only one in the first half, from the corner. He was one of two from downtown in the second half, his pals attacking more from the paint. Johnson finished with 24. He had a feeling something like this might happen.

“I had some great practices this week,” he said. “I just felt that it was time to transition all of the hard work that I’ve made in practice.

“I’m shooting the ball with confidence. My teammates just kept telling me to keep shooting, don’t think about it and just let it go. After I hit the first shot, I knew it was going to be a good day.”

His coach liked what he saw, of course, and he’d like to see it more often – on a consistent basis. John Calipari says Johnson loses focus and at that point, it renders him all but worthless to the Cats.

“His whole thing is: You know, you can't just play hard in spurts and then stay in the game,” Calipari said. “You can play hard in spurts and sub yourself, but he's learning.”

If that consistency happens, it could be Johnson who shoulders more of the scoring load each night – reminiscent of how the Wildcats played with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Once he began to show what he could do, SGA became more of a focal point of the Kentucky offense – and that also freed up P.J. Washington on the other side of the floor.

“Definitely, I’m comfortable with the offense going through me,” Johnson said. “I know every night may not be my night. However, I think that I can make the right play and get my teammates involved.”

And if they happen to put it right back on him, know this: Keldon Johnson says, he’s ready.

“I’m not afraid to take a big shot or step up in big moments,” he said. “If my team ever needs me to get a bucket or make a big stop on defense, I can be that man.”

He showed it Saturday night in a Kentucky-Utah game that will take its place in the record book, of course, but it won’t make anyone forget those NCAA Tournament matchups in the past. Still, it might be the game UK fans point to when they look back on when the offensive identity of this year’s team took shape.

Nobody handed them a championship trophy after this one. But you have to hand it (something) to them – it was some of the best-looking offense displayed by Kentucky since the return from the Bahamas.

Now they have to hope it carries over into next weekend – against North Carolina in Chicago.