Kentucky’s recent pattern of slow starts continued Saturday. So did UK’s ability to right itself and not allow what’s become its signature up-and-down play prevent victory.
After falling behind by double digits inside the first seven minutes, Kentucky defeated Texas A&M 71-63. That extended UK’s winning streak to a season-high eight games.
But with the countdown to the all-important NCAA Tournament clicking louder and louder, might this year of living dangerously start to become … troubling?
“Troubling?” De’Aaron Fox said repeating the key word to the question. “I don’t know. Things can change.”
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UK Coach John Calipari acknowledged that the time to make the Cats’ purr with efficiency is dwindling.
“Only a few things you can do now,” he said in putting an emphasis on that last word. “It keeps happening.”
Calipari offered a possible solution. “How about you get to start different people?” he said. But the UK coach was vague on who might replace whom.
A quick trigger on substitutions might help, Calipari later said. “If you’re aggressive, you can see who (is dawdling) right away,” he said. “Bang, you two. Out! You’re killing us.”
As Texas A&M bolted to a 19-4 lead inside the first eight minutes, Calipari pressed the substitution button repeatedly. Dominique Hawkins replaced Isaiah Briscoe before the first television timeout. Wenyen Gabriel came in for Derek Willis, and Briscoe replaced Fox before the second.
All the talk about trying to avoid another slow start made no difference. Instead of playing like desperadoes, as Fox advised, the Cats seemed to have just awakened from a siesta. (The 11 a.m. local tip time didn’t help, Calipari acknowledged.)
It appeared Kentucky wanted to break the record it set against Vanderbilt on Tuesday for largest comeback to a victory in Calipari’s eight seasons as coach.
Four days after rallying from 19 points down to beat Vandy, Kentucky found itself immediately in comeback mode again. UK missed its first seven shots, made only one of its first 11 and two of its first 15.
These misfires enabled A&M to build a 19-4 lead before the second television timeout.
“Our guys were ready,” A&M Coach Billy Kennedy said. “They did what we asked them to do. … But you’ve got to give Kentucky credit. They never broke.”
Once more Malik Monk started slow. Only this time, he never got it going. He made two of 10 shots (0-for-4 from three-point range) and scored six points. It was the freshman star’s first game this season without scoring in double digits.
When Monk missed a three-pointer with UK down 23-17, Calipari’s body language seemed telling. He slumped back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest.
“Malik was awful today,” Calipari said. “That was probably the worst he played. He just wasn’t engaged in the game. He just wasn’t.”
With Monk muzzled, the first half bore no resemblance to the opening 20 minutes when the teams played in Rupp Arena in early January. UK rolled up a 50-27 halftime lead that night en route to a 100-58 laugher.
When it appeared there might be a complete reversal of fortune, A&M took its turn missing shots. The Aggies made only one of 10 in a stretch of nine-plus minutes. In that time, Kentucky chipped away at the deficit.
UK took its first lead with 3:08 left when Willis made a three-pointer. It put the Cats ahead 24-23.
Briscoe set the halftime score with a driving layup at the buzzer. That ended a half that saw A&M make two shots in the final 12:08.
In the first 99 seconds of the second half, Fox hit two three-point shots. He thus equaled his career high for three-point baskets in a game within 56 seconds and extended Kentucky’s lead to 38-30.
“Fox played with a really good pace, and was the difference for them in the second half,” Kennedy said. Fox scored 15 of his team-high 19 points in the second half.
“De’Aaron, he has to be on the floor for them to be at their best,” Kennedy said. “He’s a difference-maker.”
A Willis three-pointer with 14:04 left gave UK its first double-digit lead: 47-35.
A&M got as close at 55-51with more than six minutes left.
Then Briscoe drove and floated in a shot. On the next possession, Willis flipped up a three-point shot from the top of the key. It barely reached the front of the rim, bounced high in the air and fell through.
It seemed a fitting punctuation for Kentucky’s afternoon on the edge.
This continuing flirtation with defeat, which surely alarms fans, led Calipari to offer perspective.
“No one is beating anybody by 30 (points) like we did in ’15,” he said. “That team in ’15, we were just whopping on people. You look at all the scores of everybody, they’re one-point games. They’re overtime games. The teams on the top are winning, but they’re not burying anybody.
“So we’re not the only team struggling to get away from people. Our issue is we’ve got to start better.”
Friday’s quarterfinals, opponent and time to be determined