After Kentucky beat Marshall 82-54 Saturday, point guard Ryan Harrow decoded the message he kept saying to teammates during the game.
"I kept saying, 'Let's go,'" he said. "I told the guys before the game, when I say 'Let's go" I mean 'Let's go home.'"
Apparently, the UK players feared that another performance that failed to please John Calipari might cause the UK coach to activate his inner Ebenezer Scrooge. Cold-hearted Cal might bah-humbug Christmas entirely. No trips home. No packages wrapped with care. No visions of sugar plums.
Instead, there might be more of a stick-to-business lifestyle that Harrow had described as "basketball-basketball-basketball."
When asked why this game better reflected the zeal expected from a concentration (on basketball) camp begun a week or so earlier, Harrow noted the anticipation of Christmas.
"It could have been we were all trying to get home," he said. "To make sure we got home."
Did the Cats really think a poor performance might cause Calipari to cancel the players' Christmas?
"You never know with him," Harrow said before rising from a chair and adding, cheerfully, "Merry Christmas, everyone!"
Led by Harrow's career-high 23 points, Kentucky improved to 8-3. The Cats did not crush Marshall seamlessly. The ghost of past uninspiring play reappeared at times. UK led by only three points early in the second half and did not enjoy a double-digit lead until after the first television timeout.
But Calipari saw more of the competitive effort he'd been seeking.
"Oh, we got better," Calipari said. "Oooh, a couple guys had lapses, and those lapses will kill us in our league. But the reality of it is we got way better."
Marshall (7-6) tried to push Kentucky around. The Thundering Herd's 16 offensive rebounds reflected a team capable of standing up to UK.
"I like to think our team can play physically against a lot of teams in the country," Marshall Coach Tom Herrion said. "... We try to lay the wood on people.
"I think they responded pretty well."
Noting that he watched "a boatload" of tape covering Kentucky's last six games, Herrion said, "I thought they were a lot more active, kind of the way I like (to see basketball played). Bodies were flying. Bodies for both teams. In some games, they might have backed off, some guys, and not responded. Tonight they did play to a physical level that's going to be helpful."
Kentucky won with defense (Marshall made only 29.5 percent of its shots) and opportunistic transition offense created by missed shots and the Herd's 17 turnovers.
"The thing I like about Marshall (is a style that's) very physical, bump-and-grind team that we outrebounded, and they were big," Calipari said. "That's what we needed. We needed a game like that. We needed a team that would play that way."
Marshall hung tough, in part, because Kentucky made only one of 13 first-half shots from three-point range. In the first 10 minutes of the breakout second half, the Cats took only one three-point shot.
Instead, UK ripped and ran. "What we can't do against this team (is) when you open the floor off turnovers and long misses, they're so good and so explosive," Herrion said of the Cats.
Multiple fast breaks contributed to a 27-5 run that gave Kentucky a 62-37 lead.
Preceding the breakout was a pivotal timeout. After Marshall sandwiched baskets around UK's telegraphed pass into the post, Calipari called time with 19:20 left. Kentucky led 33-29.
"We got cool," the UK coach said. "We had a couple guys that just want to kind of go out, look around like there's not a game here. It's an AAU game."
The fix did not come immediately. Archie Goodwin, who made only four of 17 shots (tied for the most taken by a UK player this season), had two straight ill-conceived driving attempts blocked.
But after Marshall closed within 35-32, Kentucky pulled away.
"The message was to re-energize them," Herrion said of Calipari's timeout. "And they played with a little more passion."
Calipari credited Camp Cal, eating better, lifting weights and bonding.
"We're starting to get into each other now versus ourselves," he said. "And it's nice to see."
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com