The strides Kentucky insisted had been made during the recent losing streak became obvious Tuesday night.
UK’s 87-72 victory over Arkansas looked like giant steps of progress.
With a pep band addicted to the William Tell Overture and a sellout crowd urging the home team on, Kentucky had plenty to overcome.
The situation got more dire when Arkansas scored the game’s first 11 points. But delirium turned to somber resignation as Kentucky showed it could win a grinding possession-by-possession game.
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“I’m proud to come in here (and win),” UK Coach John Calipari said. “This is a hard place to play. … Thank God it rained like it did. Probably kept some people away.”
Never mind the steady, cold rain that drenched northwest Arkansas. Kentucky, which handed Arkansas its second defeat in 16 home games, used its size and defense to get through an early storm inside Bud Walton Arena.
For a second straight game, UK smothered an opponent on the boards, 46-29. That included 18 offensive rebounds, two shy of the total the Cats had against Alabama on Saturday.
After making eight three-pointers in the first half, Arkansas made only one in the second.
Suddenly, the four-game losing streak that ended three days earlier seemed like ancient history.
When asked how long ago the losing streak seemed, Kevin Knox quipped, “I don’t remember that.”
Jarred Vanderbilt added, “Did we have a four-game losing streak?”
Calipari explained the difference between then and now as a settling process spurred in a team meeting about 10 days earlier.
“Gave them their roles,” he said. “This is your role on the team. Can you do it? If you can’t, I can’t play you.”
Coincidentally, UK’s 16 assists equaled the most in a game since getting 18 against Virginia Tech on Dec. 16.
“We’ve gotten better because we’ve settled on how we’re playing,” Calipari said.
Kevin Knox led Kentucky’s offense. He scored 23 points, his seventh game with 20 or more.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander added 18 points, PJ Washington 13, and Quade Green 12. Vanderbilt’s 11 points equaled the career-high total he had against Alabama on Saturday.
Kentucky improved to 19-9 overall and 8-7 in the Southeastern Confernce.
Arkansas’ records slipped to the same 19-9 and 8-7. Daryl Macon led the Hogs with 26 points. Anton Beard and Jaylen Barford added 13 and 12.
A 43-43 tie at halftime marked an achievement for Kentucky.
By scoring the game’s first 11 points, Arkansas threatened to blitz UK. Calipari called time 70 seconds into the game. By then, Arkansas had made the first two of its eight three-point baskets in the first half. The eight represented as many threes as 18 previous UK opponents had made in whole games.
Vanderbilt and Washington helped steady Kentucky.
With fouls called on its first two attempts at offensive rebounding, it seemed clear that UK wanted too use its superior size. But early on, it was Arkansas that had the 7-2 rebounding advantage.
Led by Vanderbilt and Washington, UK enjoyed a 23-17 rebounding advantage by halftime.
Kentucky took its first lead when Knox made two free throws with 4:36 left. The margin reached its first-half zenith when Washington stole a pass and raced to a layup while being fouled. The three-point play gave UK a 43-40 lead with 18.2 seconds left.
Macon thrilled the crowd by first faking Sacha Killeya-Jones off his feet, then by tying the score with a three-point from the top of the key in the final seconds.
Neither team took control in the early minutes of the second half. Third fouls on Nick Richards and Washington before the first television timeout dulled UK’s start.
Knox got hot and Kentucky rode him. He scored nine of UK’s first 20 points of the second half. His feathery jumper from the baseline and fast-break banker put the Cats ahead 63-61 and prompted an Arkansas timeout with 11:39 to go.
Gilgeous-Alexander helped give UK a 72-65 lead entering the final nine minutes. Though zero for five from three-point range in the previous five games, he hit a three from the corner, then somehow got a floater to drop seconds before the shot clock expired.
Two free throws by Vanderbilt, which capped a tap-tap-tap multi-chance opportunity possession, put the Cats ahead 72-65.
Calipari tempered his enthusiasm about what’s essentially a freshman team winning at Arkansas.
“I’m happy with the direction we’re going in,” he said. “But this league is a bear.”
Missouri at Kentucky
8:15 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)