For all the talk of Breakfast Clubs and the basketball-basketball-basketball single-mindedness that comes in the weeks between semesters, Kentucky Coach John Calipari welcomed the chance to stand under mistletoe rather than a basket.
"We all need a break," Calipari said after an 87-63 victory over Loyola (Md.) Thursday ushered in the Christmas break. "Let's catch our breath."
Calipari marveled that Kentucky had completed only about a third of the season after defeating a strong-willed Loyola team. UK needed a 22-4 second-half run to win.
"Can you imagine? We still have two-thirds of the way to go," Calipari said.
As he explained it, UK's 11-1 record required a lot of sweat from a freshman-dependent team and — by necessity — a readily adaptable staff.
"I'm happy even though I'm dragging these guys more than I want to," Calipari said. "When we click and we come together, and we're all playing aggressive and we're all bouncing and talking and all making easy plays, this stuff gets crazy.
"We're not close to that, right now. But this thing could get scary."
Calipari saw the issue of toughness resurface, especially in a first half that ended with Loyola trailing by only six, 45-39.
Freshman Kyle Wiltjer, whose playing time increased with All-America candidate Terrence Jones nursing a dislocated finger, scored a career-high 24 points.
Anthony Davis posted his fifth double-double (15 points, 11 rebounds). A third freshman, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, added 15. Earlier in the day, news broke that Kidd-Gilchrist's mother would be hospitalized through Christmas.
"I'm fighting guys too much," Calipari said. "I'm not fighting Anthony and Michael, because they're just getting after it.
"But I'm fighting my point guard to be a point guard."
For a second straight game, Marquis Teague committed four turnovers.
"I'm fighting Darius to be tougher," Calipari said, "fighting Kyle for defense. Fighting Eloy (Vargas) to come up with balls.
"They have to want that stuff more than I want it."
No one could question the want-to of Loyola, off to its best start since joining Division I in 1981-82. A play late in the first half made that readily apparent.
Loyola's Erik Etherly drove by Wiltjer. Davis arrived at the basket with help defense just in time to get "poster-ized" by Etherly's flying dunk.
No, third-ranked Kentucky did not intimidate Loyola.
"We have kids who've played with their kids," said Loyola Coach Jimmy Patsos, who noted how the inner-city areas of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore are prime recruiting territory. "Our kids can look at them eye to eye."
Kentucky led 45-39 at halftime, thanks largely to a 17-5 advantage in made free throws.
Perhaps because the half failed to produce a breakout, Kentucky put Kidd-Gilchrist back in the game at the 11:20 mark despite his two fouls.
Loyola, which came into the game ranked No. 262 in the nation in three-point baskets, was one shy of its average of five by halftime.
"When we break down on threes, they make them all on us," Calipari said of Loyola this game and UK opponents in general. The Cats rank only 169th nationally in three-point defense. "They're not making the ones when we guard. We have to be focused each time, which we don't because we're young."
Kentucky took control early in the second half. With the lead at 51-46, the Cats re- established a double-digit lead. Wiltjer's three with 17:12 left (UK's first trey of the game) started a 9-2 mini run that put UK ahead 60-48 at the first television timeout.
Kidd-Gilchrist dunked twice during the span.
The run grew to 14-4 when Kidd-Gilchrist fed a fast-break lob that Davis dunked. That made it 65-50, prompting a Loyola timeout with 13 minutes left.
Wiltjer's set shot from the right side put Kentucky ahead 71-50 with 10:59 left. Loyola hadn't made a basket in more than five minutes.
An emphatic block by Davis, who took full advantage of an eight-inch height advantage over a driving J'hared Hall, made another Loyola score — let alone a rally — seem questionable.
The UK lead never was less than 19 points the rest of the way.
"We need that shooting and scoring on the floor," Calipari said of Wiltjer's contribution. "It stretches out the defense. It really, really stretches out the defense."
For now, Calipari, and surely his players, can look forward to simply stretching out.