In defeating Harvard 79-70 on Saturday, Kentucky breathed life into the cautionary comments Coach John Calipari made earlier in the week.
Calipari advised fans to bridle the enthusiasm generated by last Sunday’s 107-73 thrashing of UIC.
“We’ve got a great group of kids who are learning,” Calipari said on his radio show Monday. “I don’t want people to get too excited. … These are young kids. The minute they feel good, they’ll revert. That’s just how it is.”
As if on cue, Kentucky battled itself as well as Harvard.
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“There are stretches that we don’t play winning basketball,” Calipari said after his team improved to 7-1. Then, as if interpreting what his players sometimes think, he added, “‘I’m just going to make whatever play I want to make.’
“We broke off plays at the end, and guys just (led the coach to ask) ‘Why did you do that? … I mean, why did you do that?’ We had a bunch of those today.”
UK players made available for postgame interviews pled guilty.
Kevin Knox, who led Kentucky with 20 points, was not the only player to speak of selfishness.
“Every time we take a stupid shot and we’re up 20, (Calipari) always is asking why we’re taking that shot and not getting good shots.”
Of course, there’s an obvious reason: youth and inexperience. That was true for both teams Saturday, which made an uneven game seemed inevitable.
“They’re really trying,” Calipari said of his players. “They’re really trying to please me. They just don’t know (how) yet. And they shouldn’t. I’m playing all freshmen.”
Harvard had one upperclassman among its top 11 players. Its sophomore class had accounted for 80.1 percent of its points going into the game.
And UK depends on freshmen more than ever. Its top six scorers were freshmen, and they had scored 86.3 percent of the team’s points.
Kentucky neither trailed nor built a double-digit lead in the first half. That reflected an opening 20 minutes in which momentum swung back and forth.
UK led 42-37 at intermission, and might have left the court with a sense that the margin could have been greater.
Inside the final minute, Hamidou Diallo seemed ready to throw down what’s becoming his signature high-flying dunk in transition. One problem: He did not seem to have full control of the ball as the dunk attempt bounced high off the rim and over the backboard.
“Oh man, that would have been something,” Sacha Killeya-Jones said of the Diallo dunk that wasn’t. “We were playing well. That would have taken the roof off the building for sure.”
A simple layup would have expanded UK’s lead.
Calipari put both hands to his head, the body language suggesting a wish for more prudent decisions in a game seemingly headed for a possession-by-possession finish.
Validation of that impression came after Diallo’s missed dunk. A Harvard player finished the ensuing possession with an unmolested drive down the lane and layup. That set the halftime score with 47 seconds left.
Three-point shooting helped Harvard hang in there. The Crimson made seven of their first 14 shots from beyond the arc. Sophomore Seth Towns made six of seven three-point shots and led all scorers with 25 points.
Kentucky got its first double-digit lead with 14:42 left. PJ Washington’s driving shot put UK ahead 55-45.
The 10-point margin lasted 16 seconds. Towns’ three-pointer and an easy-as-you-please post-up by Henry Welsh got Harvard within 55-50 a minute later.
Harvard might have been closer still had Welsh made two mid-range set shots, the kind of shots his older brother Thomas makes regularly for UCLA.
Kentucky broke it open midway through the second half. A 13-0 run — fueled in part by three Harvard turnovers — put UK ahead 72-52 with eight minutes left.
During this stretch of less than three minutes, Kentucky could not resist adding a bit of flare or unnecessary drama, depending on your point of view. Again, a would-be dunk by Diallo made for easy second-guessing.
This time Diallo seemed to start a 360-degree spin before a transition layup or dunk. For some reason, he stopped about 20 degrees into the spin and awkwardly made the shot.
“Cal got onto him about that,” Knox said. “It wasn’t like we were up by 50.”
UK led 63-52, a margin made slimmer by the Cats’ inability to knock out wobbling opponents.
“Cal was, like, why would you do that?” Knox said. “It’s still a close game. Go up and dunk the ball.”
Kentucky led by as much as 20 down the stretch. But, of course, Harvard rallied, getting within single digits inside the final minute.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander all but promised the younger-than-ever Cats will learn their lessons.
“I think we can be a lot better, and I think we will be a lot better come March,” he said. “This team has so much upside. Once we all tap into our full potential, we’ll be really special.”
Monmouth at No. 7 Kentucky
Noon Saturday in Citi Hoops Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York (ESPNU)