With Kentucky coming off a loss and facing the opponent that most agitates its perpetually anxiety-ridden fans, the last thing the team needed was another problem.
Yet the basketball gods delivered one, and with unusual flair. Freshman Isaiah Briscoe hurt an ankle in the informal portion of pregame warm-ups. He sat on a sideline seat, looking gloomy as he explained to assistant coach John Robic what happened. From his body language, it appeared Briscoe went up for a layup and somehow injured the ankle.
Briscoe and Robic left the court, the former presumably getting treatment and the latter relaying the bad news to UK Coach John Calipari.
“Stepped on somebody’s foot … ,” Calipari said. “Twelve minutes before the game, we found out.”
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Calipari then told the players.
“I literally walked into the locker room, and I just busted out laughing,” Calipari said. “I said, ‘Stuff happens. Next man up. Who is it? Someone’s going to get an opportunity.’”
Dominique Hawkins was that man, scoring a career-high 13 points, which no doubt kept Calipari in a light-hearted mood. For instance, he joked about Briscoe losing his starting role.
Calipari referenced Wally Pipp. For those unaware, Pipp was the starting first baseman for the New York Yankees 90 years ago. He took a day off, and was replaced by Lou Gehrig, who started a streak of 2,130 consecutive starts.
More seriously, Calipari suggested that Briscoe, UK’s grittiest player, will come back as combative as ever.
“He’s a fighter,” Calipari said. “Now, what he’ll do, he’ll come back and kill people next week, if his ankle is healthy.”
Cal on Skal
Freshman Skal Labissiere’s development continues. He had two points (his first free throws in three games) and grabbed three rebounds in a season-low 10 minutes.
Labissiere was in the game midway through the second half. He exited after U of L’s Chinanu Onuaku ripped a rebound from his grasp and scored to reduce UK’s lead to 59-53 with 9:03 left.
“I wanted to leave him in the game,” Calipari said. “That one rebound he could not bring in. We got to win the game. I told him, you’re getting better. You’re way better. Let’s just keep this going and see what happens.”
Calipari said his assistants tell him he is too demanding of Labissiere.
“I need to back up,” he said of the advice he gets. “But I said, you know, I talked to the team about it and the reason is, if I’m going to be hard on Derek Willis, and I’m going to be hard on Dom, if I’m not hard on Skal, they’ve got to know why.
“Maybe he can’t handle it as much. You know what I’m saying? He’s growing (experiencing) the growing pains of this.”
Calipari won his 200th game as UK coach. He followed Adolph Rupp (876), Joe B. Hall (297), Tubby Smith (263) and Rick Pitino (219).
UK became the only school with five coaches winning 200 games. Schools with four such coaches are Alabama, Kansas, Maryland and Villanova.
Calipari needs 677 more victories to surpass Rupp’s record. With his current average of 31.7 victories a season, Calipari will need 21 more seasons to get there at age 77.
UK lifts SEC profile?
Among those cheering UK’s victory was Mark Whitworth, the Southeastern Conference Associate Commissioner in charge of lifting the league’s basketball profile.
UK’s victory over No. 16 Louisville improved the SEC’s record against ranked teams to 6-9.
Rather than dwell on that sub-.500 record, Whitworth steered the conversation to how the SEC has nine teams in the top 60 of the Ratings Percentage Index. “That really speaks to the depth of the league,” he said. The SEC is “pretty well positioned” for bids to the NCAA Tournament, he said.
After noting that the SEC has the No. 1 strength of schedule for any conference at this juncture of the season, Whitworth said that UK-U of L represented a “signature-type game.”