Again and again, John Calipari reached his hands up and grabbed his head. Either the Kentucky coach thought is hair was on fire or he found his team’s exasperating at times Tuesday night.
It was the latter. Kentucky defeated Texas A&M 85-74 in what passed for a basketball game but could have been billed an adventure on the hardwood.
Earlier this week, Calipari said one of Kentucky’s strengths this season was its depth. An opponent could not focus its defense on containing any one player, thus giving all players space to operate.
This depth was on display against the Aggies. With Kentucky’s first two “bigs” (PJ Washington and Reid Travis) struggling early, Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery filled the next-men-up roles.
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Richards and Montgomery came off the bench to spark UK in the first half. A sluggish start that saw UK fall behind 10-0 became a Big Blue avalanche. The Cats zoomed to a 14-point lead with six minutes left in the first half. The margin was still 14 points four minutes into the second half.
But Calipari’s repeated alerts that blowout victories will be rare this season came to pass. No exception could be made for an A&M team with the second-worst NCAA Evaluation Tool rating (No. 104) in the Southeastern Conference.
Statistics savant Ken Pomeroy giving Kentucky an 89-percent chance of winning suggested a faulty slide rule.
A&M (6-7) got as close ast 66-64 with 7:55 left in the second half.
But Kentucky had an answer in a night that featured a lot of answers. Immanuel Quickley hit a three-pointer.
Kentucky improved to 11-3 overall and 1-1 in the SEC.
Tyler Herro led Kentucky with 21 points. Ashton Hagans added a career-high 18. Quickley chipped in 10.
Texas A&M knew its task would be difficult. On Monday, Coach Billy Kennedy had said of the Cats, “I think they’ll be revved up a little bit from losing to Alabama.”
Kennedy drew inspiration from the Alabama-Kentucky game.
“We’re going to have to have a special performance, kind of like Alabama had,” he said.
For five minutes, Kentucky faced an opponent displaying a special performance. The Aggies made four of their first six shots and zipped to that 10-0 lead inside the first four minutes.
Richards replaced Travis at the 16:58 mark. The move paid dividends.
Richards scored five points in a 23-second span to begin a 22-4 Kentucky run. That marked the most points Richards had scored since getting six against Monmouth on Nov. 28.
Richards also fouled quickly, too. He went to the bench with two fouls at the 13:07 mark.
Montgomery took the baton. He scored on back-to-back possessions, which marked the first time he’d scored more than two points in a game since getting eight against UNC Greensboro on Dec. 1.
Sparked by Richards and Montgomery, Kentucky extended the run to a 35-11 margin.
A six-point trip downcourt completed a stark turnaround that saw the 10-0 deficit become a 35-21 lead.
An intentional foul on Wendell Mitchell prevented a breakaway layup by Hagans. The aftermath of the play saw off-setting technical fouls on Washington and Christian Mekowulu, plus a foul on A&M’s John Walker.
The result was Hagans making four of four free throws. Then Johnson cashed in the subsequent possession with post-up score.
Later in the half, Kentucky had a four-point trip downcourt as Jemarl Baker made a three-pointer from the corner while being fouled.
The 46 points marked Kentucky’s highest-scoring half since leading Winthrop 51-37 at intermission on Nov. 21.
A&M’s 12 turnovers helped. Those turnovers helped UK score nine points off fast breaks, or one more than the Cats scored in the game at Alabama.
Vanderbilt at No. 18 Kentucky
8:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network)