A sense of danger filled Rupp Arena Saturday night. Kentucky fans knew No. 2 Kansas could beat the Cats. Noted boxing announcer Michael Buffer’s introduction of UK’s starters and his call to “Let’s get ready to round-ball” brought forth an explosive roar.
It also produced 126.4 decibels, which UK said was the loudest indoor roar ever recorded.
Oh yeah, two heavyweights would square off.
Kansas rallied to win 79-73. Kentucky was left with a painful loss to cap a difficult week.
From UK’s perspective, youth was served . . . on a platter.
Kansas, which rebounded from a loss at West Virginia to improve to 19-2, not only kept its poise, but made clutch play after clutch play.
“We have a team full of freshmen and sophomores,” said Isaiah Briscoe, a graybeard for the Cats as a sophomore. “Today, Kansas’s experience showed.”
Kentucky fell to 17-4 overall and 3-3 against ranked opponents. A home loss, even to No. 2 Kansas, twisted a knife inserted by a loss at unranked Tennessee on Tuesday.
The loss also dropped UK’s home record to 129-6 in John Calipari’s eight seasons as coach.
Kansas took charge with less than eight minutes left. The Jayhawks scored 11 straight points to take a 69-59 lead with 4:39 left. That was KU’s first double-digit lead of the game.
But Coach Bill Self thought a pivotal moment came late in the first half.
Kentucky led by as much as 12 points early. “Oh, I thought this could get ugly really fast,” Self said. “I thought it was already ugly.”
But Kansas closed to within five, 32-27, by halftime.
“I thought we showed extreme upperclassman leadership,” Self said.
Briscoe saw an opportunity squandered because of youthful inattention.
“We thought we were 20 points better than that team,” he said. “I still believe that. We got up early. Then our youth just showed.”
Center Landen Lucas, the supposed weak link, came up big in Kansas’ second-half run. He scored two baskets in the mini breakout. That gave him 13 points, and proved a dramatic upturn for a player who made one of six shots and scored four in the previous two games.
Kentucky shook off the blow. The Cats narrowed the deficit to 69-64.
But Kansas made the big plays a national contender should make. Ukraine native Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk hit a three-pointer over Briscoe to ease the tension.
Later, Josh Jackson beat Willis to an offensive rebound. His putback put Kansas ahead 73-66 with 65 seconds left.
“I thought I had it,” Willis said. “He just grabbed it. He came up with the right play, and that’s kind of what did it in.”
Frank Mason III led Kansas with 21 points. Jackson added 20 and Devonte’ Graham had 12.
Poor foul shooting (five of 11) and the freshman-itis that regularly inflicts Kentucky factored in to keeping the game close in the first half.
UK scored only one basket in the final 3:39. The Cats missed their final four shots of the first half and committed four turnovers inside the final five minutes. More than one seemed unforced.
“Some of what we’ve done in every game,” UK Coach John Calipari said of the stretch.
Kansas had to feel good about only being down five points. The Jayhawks missed all eight of their three-point shots in the first half. On Friday, Calipari expressed concern about Kansas’ three-point shooting. The Jayhawks came into the game with the nation’s seventh-best accuracy from beyond the arc (41.8 percent).
The game began at a frenetic pace. One 14-second period saw three baskets scored: two fast-break drives by Fox sandwiched around one by Mason.
But neither team shot well enough to made the pace translate into points. UK and KU combined to make only 24 of 58 shots.
Two key matchups went Kentucky’s way in the first half. Monk scored 12 points, most over KU’s perimeter stopper, Graham.
On Friday, ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg spoke of the Monk-Graham matchup when assessing how Carlton Bragg’s suspension might affect Kansas’s defense.
“It probably changes even more what they have to do defensively to stay out of foul trouble,” Greenberg said before adding, “My gut feeling is they play defense like they did against Oklahoma and Buddy Hield. Make it hard for Malik Monk to catch the basketball.”
Graham, who played for the same AAU program as former UK star John Wall, held Oklahoma star Hield to five-for-15 shooting and 24 points in a rematch after Hield scored 46 in Allen Fieldhouse last season.
The other matchup that UK had to like was the four-spot. Jackson scored 10 points for Kansas, but Willis neutralized the damage with seven of his own.
The four-spot took center stage early in the second half. Jackson hit back-to-back threes, the second putting Kansas ahead 33-32 (the Jayhawks’ first lead since 8-7).
Willis answered with a couple of his own threes, the second gave him a season-high four in the game and put Kentucky ahead 45-40.
Kansas rallied, took the lead and extended it to 54-49 with 11:28 left.
Another Willis three steadied Kentucky. The Cats took a 59-58 lead, but Kansas was not going anywhere. A tip-in by Jackson and Mason’s three-pointer put Kentucky behind 63-59 with 6:43 left.
Georgia at No. 4 Kentucky
9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)