If you hadn’t watched Kentucky defeat Utah on Saturday and wondered how the game went, the place to be was probably the dorm room shared by freshmen Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro.
Good-natured teasing fills the air when all is good. So it seemed telling how Johnson described the atmosphere he expected after Kentucky’s 88-61 victory.
“We’re definitely going to have some chatter in the room tonight,” Johnson said.
No doubt this chatter will involve three-point shooting. Johnson and Herro led the way as Kentucky made a season-high 12 threes. Johnson’s six three-pointers were the most by a UK player in a game this season.
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Herro’s counter to Johnson’s chatter could be two three-pointers, plus a pass that put on display what UK Coach John Calipari said was a reason for the shooting accuracy.
Calipari quoted an ESPN2 commentator. “Jimmy (Dykes) said on the TV after, ‘They were clean passes,’” Calipari said. “Like clean catches and clean shots, which means we had willing passers.”
About 10 minutes into the game, Herro had an open shot from a spot on the floor from where Calipari likes to see shots launched: a corner.
Instead of shooting, Herro passed to his roommate. Johnson made the three.
When asked if Herro’s decision defined the willing passing Calipari wants, Johnson said, “It defines it really well.”
Johnson said he’s willing to return the favor. “He’s one of the best shooters I’ve seen,” he said of Herro. “If he’s open, I’m going to swing it to him.”
The chatter between Johnson and Herro is nothing new. Each player’s family participates.
“It goes on a lot,” Herro said. “We just always talk trash to each other. His family, they say they think I’m better than him. And my family think he’s better than me.
“We just go back and forth as a joke.”
Kentucky, which improved its record to 8-2, also played good defense. Utah (4-5) committed four shot clock violations, and flirted with at least four more. Utah also had 18 turnovers, which fueled a 34-9 advantage for Kentucky in points off turnovers.
Herro, who scored 17 points, gave the first half a fitting punctuation by swishing a three-pointer from the left wing at the buzzer. That gave Kentucky a 41-27 lead at intermission.
Kentucky made six three-pointers in the first half. That was more than UK had made in six of its previous nine games.
Utah came into the game expected to have an advantage in three-point shooting. The Utes ranked No. 71 with an average of nine three-point baskets per game. UK ranked No. 325 with an average of 5.6 per game.
“You kind of have to pick your poison,” Utah Coach Larry Krystkowiak said of UK’s shooting. “Make a decision on how you’re going to try to guard them. Numbers wise, I think the three-point shot hadn’t been their strength.”
Conversely, Utah made only three of 12 three-point shots in the first half.
Johnson led Kentucky’s long-range shooting. He made his first five three-point shots. That gave him 15 points with more than eight minutes left in the first half. That marked the most threes by a UK player so far this season. The previous high was the four PJ Washington made against North Dakota.
“I was pretty hot,” Johnson said with a wide smile.
When asked if Johnson has fulfilling the need for a catalyst who can change games, Calipari agreed, but added a qualifier. “He loses focus sometimes,” the UK coach said. “And when he loses focus, whether it be defensively or offensively, it really hurts us.”
Utah turned the ball over 10 times in the first half.
“If you’re turning it over and taking bad shots, you’re putting yourself at high risk,” Krystkowiak said Friday.
Kentucky holstered its three-point guns early in the second half. The Cats took only two three-point shots in the first nine minutes.
Utah closed within 56-47 by making eight of its first 11 shots of the second half. Almost 12 minutes remained, but the Utes got no closer.
Johnson figured in UK’s push back. His sixth three-pointer was part of an 8-0 run that gave Kentucky a 64-47 lead going into the final eight minutes.
No. 19 Kentucky vs. No. 12 North Carolina
5:15 p.m. Saturday in CBS Sports Classic in Chicago (CBS-27)