Jemarl Baker’s bountiful evening Tuesday included a career-high three assists, a timely three-pointer while being fouled, his first two-pointer for Kentucky and credit from John Calipari for being the game-changer in an 85-74 victory over Texas A&M.
Then came another debut: Baker settling into a chair as reporters crowded around him for postgame interviews.
“I like it,” he said when asked what he thought of this scene. “I like it a lot.”
Calipari said that Baker changed the game by doing less, or maybe more correctly trying to do less.
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“Well, I thought Jemarl Baker went in and was just playing basketball,” Calipari said. “Wasn’t playing for himself. Wasn’t trying to get his. If a guy was open, he threw it to him. And guess what? It changed the whole complexion of the game.”
Baker downplayed the difference he made.
“I just go in and played my game,” he said. “I don’t like to force things. I’m not trying to be flashy or anything. I just go out there and play basketball.”
Calipari acknowledged being surprised at how Baker, who came to UK labeled as a shooter, can contribute.
“I didn’t know he could defend the way he defends,” Calipari said. “He really plays hard. Really tries.”
This is not something new, Baker said. “I take a lot of pride in defense,” he said. “And I have been since I was really little. My dad taught me. My coaches when I was little taught me to defend and give it all you’ve got whether it’s offense or defense. I just take pride in everything I do.”
Because of injuries, Baker has been a model of perseverance. A knee injury sustained as a high school senior forced him to sit out his freshman season at UK. He made the Southeastern Conference’ s Academic Honor Roll.
His UK debut was further delayed by knee soreness, which sidelined him during the four August exhibition games in the Bahamas.
“It was really frustrating,” he said. “But when I found out it was just little minor stuff, then I felt better after that.”
Baker made his belated debut with a one-minute cameo against Seton Hall on Dec. 8. Then a week later, he scored his first points by making two three-pointers in the final two minutes against Utah.
Through it all, Baker made an impression.
“Jemarl brings a great attitude every day,” Tyler Herro said. “He came in and really made a spark for us. ... Jemarl keeps making strides, and we’re happy for him.”
Baker’s contributions against Texas A&M seemed like reaching a new plateau. But that’s not what he said when asked about his best moment as a UK player.
“Just being on the court with the team,” he said. “That’s it. I’m just having fun playing here and just try to play for everybody on the team.”
Calipari lamented that players did not always follow the game plan of going over screens to defend three-point shooters.
Immanuel Quickley and Baker said they were not guilty of going under screens.
Herro said he was guilty. “Oh yeah, I did,” he said.
Said Quickley: (Calipari) got on Ashton (Hagans) a little bit. But you know Ashton’s a really good defensive player. I don’t worry about Ashton’s defense at all.”
By beating Texas A&M, Kentucky improved its record after a loss to 47-12 in Calipari’s 10 seasons as coach. That includes 3-0 this season.
All three of what UK called “bounce-back games” in its notes to media were played in Rupp Arena.
Texas A&M players wear a commemorative patch in honor of the late George H.W. Bush. He is buried at his presidential library, which is on the A&M campus in College Station.
▪ Texas A&M’s 19 turnovers were the most by a UK opponent since Tennessee State had 19 on Nov. 23. A&M Coach Billy Kennedy cited his team’s 12 first-half turnovers as fueling UK’s transition offense and changing the game.
▪ Ken Pomeroy gave UK an 89 percent chance of winning. He also likes UK’s chances in the next two games: At home against Vanderbilt (86 percent) and at Georgia (76 percent).