Again and again during Kentucky’s 85-74 victory over Texas A&M Tuesday, 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 play exasperating at times
UK players needed no interpreter. They understood Calipari’s body language.
“Uh, probably that he’s not happy,” Tyler Herro said before adding an unconvincing, “I’m guessing.”
Jemarl Baker did not waffle about what Calipari’s oy yey. “That something’s going on that’s not good,” he said.
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Kentucky beat Texas A&M in what passed for a basketball game but could have been billed an adventure on hardwood. The wild swings of momentum included a 10-0 deficit to start, a 35-11 run that put the Cats on the brink of a blowout, then finally the need for possession-by-possession execution when A&M closed within two points.
“We’re breaking down (with execution) right now, and it’s driving me crazy,” Calipari said.
Calipari suggested his players must learn to handle victory and defeat. The latter unites the players in a common effort, he said, but the latter causes the players to feel free to seek personal glory.
When asked his reaction, Herro said, “I don’t have anything to say about that.”
Earlier this week, the UK coach said one of his team’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.
That was on display against A&M. With Kentucky’s first two “bigs” (PJ Washington and Reid Travis) struggling early, Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery filled the next-men-up roles.
Richards and Montgomery came off the bench to spark UK in the first half. A sluggish start 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.
“I think they’re so balanced,” A&M Coach Billy Kennedy said. “They have so many different guys that can come off the bench and score quickly.”
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 as 66-64 with 7:55 left in the second half.
But Kentucky had an answer in a night that featured a lot of questions, but also a lot of answers. Immanuel Quickley hit a three-pointer.
When asked why a convincing victory remains out of reach, Quickley said, “I’m not sure. Maybe it was our effort and energy.”
Calipari seemed to agree. “We had some guys get outworked and they think it’s OK,” he said after UK improved to 11-3 overall and 1-1 in the SEC.
While saying he expected Kentucky to be “revved up a little bit” after the loss at Alabama Saturday, Kennedy saw the game in Tuscaloosa providing a blueprint.
“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 a 10-0 lead inside the first four minutes.
“We’re a pretty composed team,” Baker said of the quick double-digit deficit. “I knew it wouldn’t get too out of hand.”
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 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. The 10-0 deficit become a 35-21 lead.
An intentional foul on Wendell Mitchell prevented a breakaway layup by Ashton Hagans. The aftermath of the play saw offsetting 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 Keldon Johnson cashed in the subsequent possession with post-up score.
Later in the half, Kentucky had a four-point trip down court as 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.
After saying he dragged Kentucky across the finish line, Calipari added, “I’m exhausted.”