John Clay

Winning close games is a skill Kentucky’s freshmen were not supposed to possess

How can Kentucky basketball get Nick Richards going?

Kentucky Coach John Calipari talks about freshman center Nick Richards, who managed four points and three rebounds in win at Vanderbilt.
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Kentucky Coach John Calipari talks about freshman center Nick Richards, who managed four points and three rebounds in win at Vanderbilt.

Think what you will of Bruce Pearl, but bellowing Bruce can still coach a little, a point he’s proving now on the plains with Auburn the basketball surprise of the SEC, 16-1 overall and atop the league standings at 4-0.

After that, the early returns from conference tilts are about what you might expect, with the glaring exception of the whiplash that is Texas A&M, so good in pre-conference play (11-1) and so dreadful in the SEC at 0-5 and now parked on the bottom rung of the league ladder.

Then there’s Kentucky.

You know, the youngest team in America, if not the history of America, Kentucky.

You remember, these- new-Cats-aren’t-quite-as-good-as-the-old-new-Cats, Kentucky.

Wasn’t the better-than-ever SEC supposed to, thankfully, yank John Calipari’s current club back to the pack?

Different year, nearly the same old story. After five league games, Kentucky sits 4-1, tied with Florida just a half-game behind Auburn. The four UK triumphs have come by a grand total of 16 points — 66-61 over Georgia; 74-71 at LSU; 74-73 over Texas A&M and 74-67 at Vanderbilt on Saturday.

On the one hand, you’d like to see the Wildcats put some distance between themselves and the opposition. On the other hand, there’s a skill to winning close games, a skill that fuzzy-faced freshmen are not supposed to possess.

“Those freshmen from Kentucky did a great job playing with poise down the stretch,” said Vandy Coach Bryce Drew on Saturday. “They’ve been in a lot of close games and they made free throws and shots down the stretch.”

“Winning plays” was the term freshman forward Kevin Knox used afterward, parroting his head coach. A string of nail-biter wins is pretty remarkable for a team that (a) doesn’t have a grizzled veteran to show how it’s done and (b) the last two games has been reduced to a lean and mean seven-man rotation without starting point guard Quade Green (back strain).

Surely confidence plays a huge role. Once a team executes enough down the stretch to win a conference game, it builds the belief it can make those very same plays to win another close conference game down the stretch.

“It’s absolutely true that confidence in close games ties into who’s going to be on the floor when you close games,” Drew said. “Those are all important ingredients during the postseason and advancing in the post-season. We’re still searching for those combinations that can close out games.”

Kentucky and Vanderbilt were tied at 59 with 5:01 left before UK outscored the Commodores 13-8 to spoil the Commodores’ shot at another Memorial Magic memory.

Meanwhile, around the league on Saturday, Florida trailed Mississippi 72-70 with 1:46 left in Oxford but lost 78-72 and fell to 4-1 in league play. Missouri led Arkansas 63-60 with 2:49 to let in Fayetteville but lost 65-63 and fell to 2-2 in the SEC.

Down 11 at the half at Mississippi State, Auburn rallied to take an 11-point lead in the second half, only to see the host Bulldogs pull to within two with 2:58 left. No matter. Pearl’s players outscored MSU 9-3 the rest of the way to keeping their SEC sheet clean with a 76-68 win.

And apparently the heartbreak of successive one-point losses to LSU (69-68 at home) and Kentucky (74-73 on the road) was too much for Texas A&M, which barely put up a fight in a 75-62 loss at Tennessee.

Truth be told, you’d better get used to these close games. There will be plenty more to come.

“I’m asking for the impossible,” Calipari repeated Saturday. “I’m playing a bunch of freshmen and I’m asking them to go on the road in a hostile environment — ‘Black-Out Night’ (or) ‘Shirt Night’ — and let’s win the game. And it’s going to be close but you’ve got to tough it out. But that’s what my job is.”

Next game

Kentucky at South Carolina

9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)

SEC men’s basketball standings

Team

SEC

Overall

Auburn

4-0

16-1

Kentucky

4-1

14-3

Florida

4-1

12-5

Tennessee

3-2

12-4

Alabama

3-2

12-4

Ole Miss

3-2

10-7

Missouri

2-2

12-5

LSU

2-2

11-5

Arkansas

2-3

12-5

Georgia

2-3

11-5

South Carolina

2-3

11-6

Miss State

1-3

13-4

Vanderbilt

1-4

6-11

Texas A&M

0-5

11-6

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