In the rousing romp that was Kentucky’s 90-61 win over Louisville on Friday, there was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, he of the new ’do, moving and grooving and driving to the basket time after time on the way to 24 points and MVP honors.
There was running mate Quade Green, sans those dark shades, stopping and popping and dropping in threes on the way to 13 points and five assists.
There was PJ Washington, making shots, hitting the boards, sinking free throws, prompting his coach to compare him to Draymond Green while on the way to 16 points and seven rebounds.
“I thought it was PJ’s best game,” John Calipari said afterward.
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So what in the name of New Year’s surprises happened to this year’s Battle of the Bluegrass, which everyone knew would be (a) minus Rick Pitino and (b) surely a down-to-wire affair between two evenly matched teams? Better still, what happened to that Kentucky team that lost last Saturday to UCLA?
“That wasn’t us,” said guard Hamidou Diallo on Thursday.
Friday, the Cats went out and proved it, showing that when you start all freshmen and you play pretty much all freshmen, some days are diamonds and some days are rocks.
“I said today before the game, we’re no longer freshmen. I’m not saying it anymore, we’re not freshmen anymore,” said Calipari after UK’s biggest winning margin in the rivalry since the 1999-2000 season. “We’re 10 games in, 11 games in, we are not freshmen. And the other thing I said we’ve got to start smashing people.”
Yes, this day was a diamond all right, an unexpected 24-karat considering the Cats’ 83-75 slip-up last week against the Bruins in New Orleans — “I was a no-show,” said Green, who went 1-for-7 in the Big Easy. “We had a lot of no-shows.” — a performance the Cats vowed to leave in Louisiana.
“We had to redeem ourselves,” Green said.
“Give them all the credit,” said David Padgett, Louisville’s interim head coach. “They responded from a loss.”
That it was Padgett rather than Pitino directing the Cardinals did bring an odd feel to a game that already had an odd starting time and day. The outcome didn’t change, however. Pitino was 0-4 in Rupp Arena vs. Calipari before being pink-slipped in September and there was one school of thought that the former UK coach was always so uptight about returning to the place he once coached, the pressure was transferred over to his players.
If that’s the case, maybe the Cards were too loose on Friday. Foul trouble wrecked Padgett’s first-half plan. Skilled shot-blockers Anas Mahmoud and Ray Spalding, plus sophomore scorer V.J. King, played just 11 minutes of the first 20. And Louisville found itself trailing 41-27 at the break.
“That hurt,” said Padgett, who quickly shifted the praise back to Kentucky. “I mean they were the much better basketball team.”
None better than Gilgeous-Alexander, who admitted his mother talked him into shedding his signature dreadlocks over Christmas break. Coming off the bench, the happy Canadian — “He’s always smiling,” said Calipari — set the tone by driving the ball right at and around the tall U of L timber for eight two-point field goals to go with his one three-pointer.
“I watched the tape,” he said of the UCLA loss, “and I could see we needed to be more aggressive.”
To Calipari, the UCLA tape showed a team too full of itself after beating Virginia Tech. That arrogance was “unearned,” said the coach. But if last Saturday’s loss showed the pitfalls of having such a young team, Friday’s win showed just how good, when hitting on all cylinders, this young team can be.
As SEC play starts Sunday against Georgia, the hope for Cats fans is that moving forward there will be far more diamonds than rocks.
Georgia at No. 16 Kentucky
6 p.m. Sunday (ESPN)
Kentucky men’s basketball 2017-18
vs. Kansas (Chicago)
vsMonmouth (New York)
vsUCLA (New Orleans)