Though trending in opposite directions, sliding Kentucky and surging Texas A&M shared one trait: Unpredictability.
“We haven’t had consistent play, really, out of any player,” UK Coach John Calipari said Friday.
A&M Coach Billy Kennedy said much the same thing after his team built a sizable lead at Auburn on Wednesday and ended up winning by one point.
“Thriving and surviving.” Kennedy called it. “This team is unique. You never know what you’re going to get from them.”
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The UK-A&M game Saturday night lived up and down to expectations. When the basketball tilt-a-whirl came to a stop, Kentucky had lost 85-74. That marked UK’s third straight defeat, a first for the program since Texan Billy Gillispie was coach in 2008-09.
“We need a team full of guys performing,” Calipari said afterward, “and we didn’t have it.”
A week after Missouri beat Kentucky for the first time ever, A&M achieved a bit of history by achieving its highest point total against a UK team.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led UK with 19 points and eight assists, which prompted Calipari to say, “We have one guy playing well.”
He did not need to say it was Gilgeous-Alexander.
Kentucky, which ranked ninth nationally in field-goal defense (opponents shooting 39.3 percent), stifled A&M in the first half.
The Aggies followed this famine with a feast. A&M made 18 of its first 24 shots in the second half. That blitz included the first six three-point shots, and seven of the first half.
“I think they shot 70 percent,” said Kevin Knox, who contributed 18 points and equaled a career high of four assists. Actually, A&M made two-thirds of its shots in the second half (20 of 30).
“That’s crazy,” Knox said. “That’s a really good number. You can’t win any games with a team shooting 70 percent.”
Knox cited defensive lapses and lack of player-to-player communication leading to an abundance of uncontested shots.
Riding a wave, A&M even banked in two three-point shots from the top-of-the-key area.
“Those are heart-breakers,” Knox said.
Calipari lamented how A&M beat Kentucky in transition. The Aggies scored 13 of their 18 fast-break points in the second half, often punctuating the breakouts with dunks.
“Look,’ you can’t let lob-dunk, lob-dunk, lob-dunk,” Calipari said. “You just don’t do it. You do something. You’re not going to give that.”
A&M outscored Kentucky 35-9 inside the first 10 minutes of the second half. Kentucky trailed by as much as 23 points before its determination to keep competing made the final margin respectable.
Kentucky fell to 17-8 overall and 6-6 in the Southeastern Conference. The latter left UK tied for sixth place with Mississippi State and A&M..
A&M, which lost its first five SEC games, continued an upswing. The Aggies improved to 17-8 overall and 6-6 in the SEC.
For the first time in five games, Kentucky did not trail at halftime. The 30-26 lead marked the Cats’ largest cushion at intermission since leading 36-27 at Vanderbilt on Jan. 13.
A staple of Kentucky games — poor shooting — contributed mightily to the halftime score. Only this time it appeared UK’s habit of misfiring was contagious.
Kentucky did not exactly torch the nets, making only 36.4 percent of its shots. But UK all but abandoned the three-point shot by taking only seven of its 33 first-half shots from beyond the arc.
With UK shifting to a zone midway through the half, A&M made only 30.6 percent of its shots (11 of 36). The many misses created fast-break opportunities. Kentucky cashed in with six fast-break points in the half. That exceeded UK’s average of 5.5 fast-break points in SEC play.
Kentucky’s lead was the product of a 9-0 run in the final 2:19 of the first half. In that time, UK made three straight shots. That included three-pointers by Gilgeous-Alexander and Quade Green.
Meanwhile, A&M did not make a shot other than a dunk or layup in the final 12:28 of the half, and made only four from outside the paint overall.
Kentucky’s halftime lead disappeared in 47 seconds. And after Robert Williams dunked on a break to give A&M a 34-32, Kentucky called time with 18:01 left.
Wenyen Gabriel, Jarred Vanderbilt and Green entered the game. It didn’t help.
A&M made three straight three-pointers to expand the lead to 43-32. This prompted another UK timeout, this one coming one minute and 45 seconds after the first. To this point, the Aggies made seven of their first eight shots of the second half.
No matter the need to slow A&M’s momentum, Calipari declined to call his final timeout.
“Normally, I try to go home with timeouts,” Calipari said. “I needed four more timeouts in this game just to stem the tide. I could have called a timeout every two minutes.”
A&M looked free and frisky, now. Williams rose high over the rim for a one-handed dunk.
Any question about the dire circumstances facing Kentucky disappeared when Admon Gilder beat the shot clock by banking a three-pointer from the top of the key. That put the Aggies ahead 52-36 with less than 13 minutes left.
That shot enabled A&M to match its 11 first-half baskets inside seven minutes.
“We let go of the rope,” Calipari said. “I just told them after, I’m not cracking. This doesn’t faze me. I’m not mad at them. They’re young.”
No. 24 Kentucky at No. 8 Auburn
9 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN2)