Just when it seemed Kentucky would get pepperoni rolled, the game at West Virginia on Saturday night did a 180-degree shift.
UK rallied from a 17-point second-half deficit to win 83-76.
For No. 7 West Virginia, it was an almost heaven first half followed by a hellish second.
For Kentucky, it was the statement victory that guard Quade Green boldly talked about the team needing.
The victory, and how UK went about achieving it, “means we’re growing up,” Coach John Calipari said.
Kevin Knox scored 19 of his career-high 34 points in the startling second half. He equaled the sixth-most points scored by a UK player in Calipari’s nine seasons as coach.
When asked how he became the go-to guy UK had been seeking, Knox said, “Just staying aggressive. I mixed the game up. Going to the basket. Getting to the free-throw line. Made big shots. They are on me about driving the basketball.”
Knox’s eight free throw attempts were the third most he’s shot this season.
“Sometimes, when they weren’t close,” he said of WVU defenders, “I hit the shots.”
Knox made a season-high five three-point shots.
“He didn’t settle,” Calipari said. “He went at it. He took fouls.”
WVU Coach Bob Huggins found watching Knox open much of the night perplexing.
“The whole idea was don’t leave Knox,” he said. “I don’t think we knew where he was.”
Kentucky, which improved to 16-5, used a 21-2 run in the second half to get back in the game.
A drive by Hamidou Diallo put UK ahead 72-70 with 3:25 left. The competitive fight that Calipari talks about extended the lead to 74-70. Knox was fouled on a third-chance opportunity. His two free throws gave UK the four-point lead to protect in the final two-plus minutes.
Four times in the final seven minutes, UK got points off second-chance opportunities.
“Down the stretch, we made those plays,” Calipari said.
West Virginia, which fell to 16-5, tied it at 74-74. Then Knox hit a three-pointer from near the left corner and Nick Richards dunked a put-back to win it for Kentucky.
Kentucky trailed 48-33 at halftime. WVU eclipsed the previous high point total for a UK opponent in the first half this season (Virginia Tech scored 47), and Kentucky faced its largest halftime deficit of the season (previous biggest was nine points against Utah Valley).
“Unforced turnovers in the first half killed us,” Calipari said. “I thought they were tougher than us going to balls.”
West Virginia led for more than 18 minutes in the first half. Only four-of-nine three-point shooting made a second-half Kentucky rally plausible. The Cats stayed afloat by making three threes in the final 2:16. Those shots (two by Quade Green and one by Knox) represented UK’s only baskets in the final 8:05 of the half.
During that span, West Virginia broke it open with an 11-0 run. Jevon Carter scored nine of those points. Thirteen of his 18 first-half points came in a three-plus minute flurry that knocked Kentucky on its heels.
The game’s first possession erased any doubts about West Virginia’s zealous defense impacting Kentucky’s freshmen. A WVU trap near half-court caused Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to turn it over, fueling a fastbreak dunk.
It was the first of UK’s 11 first-half turnovers, which coincidentally enabled West Virginia to enjoy an 11-0 advantage in points off turnovers.
UK’s point guards — Gilgeous-Alexander and Green — each had three turnovers inside the first 10 minutes.
The second half did not begin with promise. Diallo could not inbounds the ball, resulting in a five-second call and UK’s 12th turnover.
“We did not set a screen on an inbounds play,” Calipari said. “I just said, we’re going with spirit. I was playing spirit.”
Two substitutions 63 seconds into the half (Sacha Killeya-Jones and Wenyen Gabriel for Richards and PJ Washington) changed the tone.
An intentional foul on Lamont West helped Kentucky close within 54-42 with 16:02 left.
Barely a minute later, UK closed within 54-47 with 14:57 left on a three-pointer by Diallo set up by a drive and pitch by Gilgeous-Alexander. That gave UK a 10-0 run and marked the first time the Cats did not trail by double digits since the 5:29 mark of the first half.
West Virginia called time.
It didn’t help. Knox hit a three. Richards made a layup. Knox drove to a layup. The deficit shrank to 56-54. West Virginia called another timeout, its second within three minutes.
A fastbreak dunk by Knox put UK ahead 58-56 with 10:38 left. That capped a 21-2 run and gave the Cats their largest lead to that point of the game.
The margin grew to 62-58 in the next minute. Then the game took a dramatic turn. James “Beetle” Bolden, a Kentuckian who starred in high school at Holmes, hit three-pointers on back-to-back possessions, the first with the shot clock down to the final five seconds.
Then Diallo made an ill-advised decision. He saved a ball at UK’s offensive baseline toward mid-court. That made for easy pickings for WVU which cashed in with a fastbreak layup to put Kentucky down 66-62.
It was UK’s turn to call timeout with 7:56 left.
Carter, who scored only two points in the first 14 minutes of the second half, came alive down the stretch. His turnaround jumper tied it at 70-70 with 3:55 left. That set up the dramatic finish.
“I’m proud of them,” Calipari said. “They know how I feel. I told them there was a spirit about you in the second half. And that’s what we’re trying to get them to practice with so it becomes who they are.”
Vanderbilt at Kentucky
9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)