Caught between a record and a hearth place, Kentucky seemed destined for a challenging game on Wednesday.
Thirty-six hours earlier, the Cats planted the UK flag at the 2,000-victory plateau, achieving another first for the proud program. Christmas and home fires loomed about 36 hours in the future.
Long Beach State, which earlier this season beat UCLA, seemed capable of being the basketball grinch to steal Kentucky's holiday joy.
Fortunately for UK, the 49ers was a nickname and not a description of the visitors' depth.
Kentucky wore down Long Beach State and won 86-73.
"I've done this so long that there are certain things that you can expect," UK Coach John Calipari said. "On the game before Christmas and following the 2,000th win where there is a celebration and people are going nuts, there is going to be a little bit of a letdown the next game."
The Cats led by only three points with less than 11 minutes left. Thereafter, UK rolled to its 13th straight victory, which gave the Cats a chance at achieving the program's first 14-0 start since the national championship season of 1977-78.
Long Beach State Coach Dan Monson was reluctant to say Kentucky's distracted mind kept the game close. "Our kids are anxious to go home for Christmas, too," he said. "The date doesn't change when you go back to California."
Then, he added, "I'll say this. I'm glad we were not Drexel. They caught them on a bad night."
After drilling Drexel 88-44 on Monday, Kentucky needed time to warm to the task against Long Beach State.
For only the fourth time this season (and the first time since the Connecticut game), Kentucky did not lead at halftime. Two Long Beach State free throws with 0:00 showing on the clock made the score 37-37.
"Maybe some guys could have been distracted," Darius Miller said. "Or maybe guys are ready for a break."
UK had reasons to be thankful for the tie at intermission. Actually, six reasons. Two fouls each on Patrick Patterson, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins robbed the Cats of the services of three of their four players with double-digit scoring averages for much of the opening half.
The fourth, Eric Bledsoe, made one of six shots (0-for-3 from three-point range) in a first half that saw Kentucky get 16 points from its four top scorers.
Cousins was the first to go to the bench with two fouls. He picked up both on the same play. After fouling T.J. Robinson on a shot attempt, Cousins got into a tussle with Larry Anderson that resulted in technical fouls on both players.
The personal and technical fouls sent Cousins to the bench with 17:44 left.
Wall was the next Kentucky player to take a seat. He picked up his second foul on a questionable charging call with 11:59 left.
At that point, Long Beach State led 15-14 even though leading scorer Robinson had made only one of his first seven shots. Robinson finished with 13 points and 15 rebounds, the most boards by a UK opponent this season.
Patterson went to the bench with two fouls at the 7:14 mark.
"We squandered a little opportunity being only tied at halftime," Monson said, "because, you know, with Cousins and Wall rested, it's going to be a little different in the second half."
The Long Beach State coach likened the second half to "a heavyweight fighter battling a weight class lower. They just pounded it inside ... and we just didn't have a physical answer inside to match up."
Cousins got busy early in the second half. He scored twice in the first 71 seconds to double his first-half output. He finished with 15 points and 15 rebounds (grabbing 14 in the second half). Patterson added 15 points and 11 rebounds.
Even with Cousins and Patterson each posting their sixth double-doubles of the season, Kentucky could not shake Long Beach State. UK did not take the lead for good until Bledsoe hit a jumper in the lane with 13:28 left. That gave the Cats a 53-51 lead.
Kentucky used free throws to expand the margin. With 10:38 left, the Cats shot the double-bonus for the first time. At that point, UK had only two fouls to Long Beach State's 10.
Monson, who picked up a technical late in the first half, saw the fouling as a sign of fatigue. Mostly.
"It was — what? — 10-2?" the Long Beach State coach said of the team fouls. "It wasn't just all them (the referees). (The Cats) were pounding it inside, and we didn't have a lot of answers."
Cousins made one of the two shots to start the double bonus. Then, after Patterson rebounded the miss, Wall's two free throws four seconds later put UK ahead 63-55. That marked the first time UK led by more than six points.
"The good news was that at the end of the game, we were able to grind it out and execute everything to a tee," Calipari said. "When we had to make plays, we did it, which was a good sign."