After getting “manhandled by men” in a loss at Tennessee on Saturday, Kentucky manned up against Texas A&M on Tuesday night.
And the Cats needed plenty of resolve to beat the Aggies 74-73.
The absence of point guard Quade Green, who was sidelined by a back ailment, was one more obstacle for Kentucky to overcome.
Another was A&M, which breathed life into Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes’ warning not to write off the Aggies despite their 0-3 start in the Southeastern Conference.
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“Too many people get too concerned early in the year with the way things start off in conference play,” he said on Monday. “I still think they’ll be there when it’s all said and done.”
A&M, which was ranked No. 5 in The Associated Press top 25 on Christmas, looked the part.
UK Coach John Calipari, who questioned his players’ toughness at Tennessee, expected A&M to try to outmuscle his team.
“That’s how A&M plays anyway,” he said. “They play a physical game.”
A game that came down to the final possession required mental as much as physical toughness. It showed how little difference there can be between winning and losing.
When PJ Washington drove for layup, the Cats led 72-67 with 56.9 seconds left.
With UK making only two of six free throws thereafter, A&M closed within 73-71 on Robert Williams’ fastbreak dunk with 31.5 seconds left.
Twice A&M missed wide open three-point shots, one by DJ Hogg from the left wing. He came into the game having made 47.9 percent of his three-point shots.
After Kevin Knox made one of two free throws, UK left Admon Gilder alone in the right corner. A 43.6-percent three-point shooter, he missed, too.
“God is a great god,” Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said of UK’s good fortune. “Especially the last one. (It was) wide open. I thought it was going in. Yeah. He missed it and we got the ‘W.’”
Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy, whose team had faced a mountain of adversity, accepted his fate.
“As good as you’re going to get,” he said of the quality of the three-point shots. “Our best shooters, and we just missed them.”
UK opened the metaphorical door to defeat one more time. After Washington missed two free throws, Gilder’s long pass for Tyler Davis sailed out of bounds at the buzzer. Davis ended up on the court.
“My guy is telling me it was a bear hug …,” Kennedy said of Wenyen Gabriel’s defense on Davis. “It’s something I’ve got to go watch.”
Gilgeous-Alexander acknowledged that a foul could have been called.
“I thought they were going to call something,” he said. “Thank God they didn’t.”
For Kentucky, which improved to 13-3 overall and 3-1 in the Southeastern Conference, a shaky final stretch led Calipari to say the toughness he wants will take time. UK missed five of eight free throws inside the final two minutes, and left A&M shooters open.
“We got closer,” Calipari said of the need to get tough. “But, still, that’s going to be a work in progress. Until we get really good at that, we’re going to be who we are. Every team that plays us is going to have a chance.”
A&M fell to 11-5 overall and 0-4 in the SEC.
Kentucky led 37-35 at halftime thanks to Knox hitting a three-pointer with seven seconds left. The shot came after UK called timeout with 16.9 seconds left.
A&M came into the game still searching for chemistry. A mix of injuries, suspensions and illness had led to disjointed play.
But with Gilder (knee injury) and Williams (flu) back in the rotation, the Aggies played smoothly. A&M made eight of its first 10 shots and did not commit a turnover in the first nine-plus minutes.
Kentucky fell behind by as much as 16-11 early. Then the Cats switched to a zone and the game changed.
A&M went more than five minutes without a basket. In that time, UK went on a 12-2 run to take its largest first-half lead: 26-20.
The switch to a zone might have gotten a nod of approval of LSU Coach Will Wade. During Monday’s SEC coaches’ teleconference, he recommended sagging a defense in the lane against Texas A&M.
“That was our main goal: just pack the paint in,” Wade said of LSU’s strategy last weekend. “If they were going to barrage us with a bunch of threes, we weren’t going to win anyway. Force them to take some threes.”
Although the fans booed several of the referees’ decisions, fouls helped Kentucky lead at halftime.
A&M, which came into the game averaging 16.1 fouls (No. 39 in the country), got whistled for 12 fouls in the first half. Kentucky made 11 of 14 free throws.
Gilgeous-Alexander, who played all but one minute of the first half, led Kentucky with 12 points. He also had three of UK’s four assists.
A&M got off to the better start in the second half. Gilder’s three-pointer put the Aggies ahead 44-39 with 17:27 left. That matched the Aggies’ largest lead to that point and prompted a UK timeout with Gabriel entering the game.
With A&M turning the ball over twice against UK, which had switched back to the zone, the Cats scored five straight points to tie it at 44-44.
Neither team pulled away. Williams, one of the media’s picks for preseason SEC Player of the Year, scored his first basket with 14:06 left. A minute later, he posted up Gabriel for a basket.
Williams was not done. He scored twice more in the next five minutes.
A driving layup by Hogg put A&M ahead 59-53 with 8:41 left. That was UK’s largest deficit.
UK did not wilt. Two fast-break baskets helped the Cats close within 63-61 at the fourth and final TV timeout of the second half (3:57 left).
That set the stage for the dramatic finish.
No. 21 Kentucky at Vanderbilt
4 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)