Before what was billed as a statement game against Virginia Tech, a cautious Kentucky Coach John Calipari seemed to try to cushion the Big Blue Nation for possible defeat.
Instead of a Truman-esque declaration about beating the Hokies and making college basketball like it, Calipari couched his words in equanimity.
“We win or we learn,” he said on Friday.
Perhaps Calipari should have given himself a third option — all of the above — as Kentucky defeated Virginia Tech 93-86 on Saturday
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Kentucky’s performance invited youthful bravado. It was not an athletic romp, which Virginia Tech Coach Buzz Williams said would favor a Kentucky roster stuffed with the kind of prospects that gives recruiting analysts a job. It was a cerebral contest with UK’s season-high 11 three-pointers and unveiling of full-court pressure checkmating the Hokies.
Virginia Tech, a veteran team with the nation’s most high-powered offense, made Kentucky’s freshmen and lightly seasoned sophomores reach deeper inside than had been necessary in earlier home games this season.
UK, which improved to 9-1, met the test in a game without much margin for error.
Hamidou Diallo figured prominently in the decisive final 90 seconds. He failed to get a hand up to contest an Ahmed Hill three-pointer that reduced what was an eight-point UK lead less than three minutes earlier to 85-83. More than a minute remained.
Then Diallo eased tensions by swishing a three-pointer from the corner nearest the UK bench with 47.9 seconds left.
“Oh man,” point guard Quade Green said of the clutch shot. “I was praying he’d hit that.”
Diallo, who scored 20 points, downplayed the notion that the shot showed he possesses what Ernest Hemingway meant when he said courage was grace under pressure.
“Oh, it was just a normal shot to me,” Diallo said. “I just got the ball and all I saw was the rim, to be honest.”
Although Virginia Tech made nearly 60 percent of its shots (58.2 percent to be exact), the Hokies never made the flood of three-pointers UK surely feared.
Actually, Kentucky made more three-pointers (11) than Virginia Tech (10).
“How about that?” Calipari said. “We don’t shoot that many threes. We shot 22? Wow.”
Virginia Tech’s offense beat Kentucky’s defense in the first half. The result was UK trailing 47-41 at the break. That marked only the third halftime deficit of the season for the Cats. UK also trailed Kansas (34-33) and Utah Valley (34-25) at the break.
Virginia Tech validated its standing as the nation’s best-shooting (55.3 percent) and scoring (96.2 points per game) team in the first half. The Hokies made 62.1 percent of their shots (18 of 29).
Turnovers prevented Virginia Tech from building an even larger halftime lead. The Hokies had 11 turnovers in the opening 20 minutes. That nearly matched the team’s average per game (13) and fueled a 21-11 advantage for Kentucky in points off turnovers.
For the game, Virginia Tech had 19 turnovers, and Kentucky enjoyed a whopping 36-13 advantage in points off turnovers.
“If we don’t turn them over, they win the game,” Calipari said.
The UK coach credited the increased full-court pressure his team applied. It was a press he used 10 years ago and installed during the week’s practices, Calipari said.
“I’ve got to figure out something that disrupts the game,” he said, “and something that (ensures opponents) don’t get into a rhythm.”
The game was competitive and entertaining. There were 11 lead changes and eight ties. Neither team built a double-digit lead.
Kentucky regained the lead early in the second half. With Kevin Knox scoring UK’s first nine points (and 11 of the first 13), UK took a 54-51 lead before the first television timeout of the second half. Knox showed his versatility, making a three, driving to an and-one three-point play, posting up for another three-point play and softly hitting a pull-up.
“Cal just got on me at halftime,” Knox said. “(He) said we’ve got to get a little bit tougher, me and Hami. … Cal said he was coming to me. So it just got me going. I got some energy (into) the team, and next thing I know, Hami’s hitting shots, Quade (Green) is hitting shots. So like Cal said, one person can get us all going.
“Me and Hami, I think, are the two go-to scorers on this team. I think Cal realized I needed to get going and he trusted me. I’m glad he did that for me.”
No. 8 Kentucky vs. UCLA
4 p.m. Saturday in New Orleans (CBS-27)