John Clay

In stirring win at West Virginia, young Kentucky grew up before our very eyes

Admit it Big Blue Nation, you awoke Sunday morning to a brand new day with a brand new way of looking at your Kentucky basketball team.

Just the night before you’d seen this 2017-18 collection of previously flummoxed freshmen suddenly and unexpectedly click before a hostile crowd inside the West Virginia Coliseum there on Jerry West Boulevard.

Led by Kevin Knox’s 34 points, John Calipari’s Cats climbed all the way back from a 17-point first half deficit — 15 at the half — to stun seventh-ranked West Virginia 83-76.

His team having fumbled another double-digit lead into a dispiriting loss — WVU had blown a 16-point lead in losing to visiting Kansas less than two weeks before — a red-faced West Virginia Coach Bob Huggins was reduced to near mumbles in his postgame press conference.

“Bottom line,” whispered Huggs into the microphone, “they’re just better than us.”

Practically no one believed that before the game. West Virginia was a 10-point favorite. The Mountaineers were ranked seventh. Their strength, turning teams over as Press Virginia, was Kentucky’s weakness, turning the ball over.

The whole atmosphere had a blowout feel to it, what with the blue-and-gold clad faithful obviously doubly pumped for Kentucky’s first visit to Morgantown since 1970 and College GameDay being in town, as well.

And the school put on quite the pregame show. The coliseum turned dark, save for a spotlight at mid-court, when the basketball team came onto the floor for the final lay-up line. Huggins was introduced over the PA not during normal starting lineup introductions, but when he first set foot on the floor five minutes before tipoff.

Artist Joe Everson sang the national anthem while painting on a canvas at mid-court. Near the end of the rendition, Everson flipped his mystery work upside down to reveal a likeness of the survivors of Iwo Jima, complete with the red-white-and-blue of the American flag. The place went West Virginia wild.

It went wilder still when the home team turned UK over on the first possession for a steal-and-slam. During one painful stretch, the Cats committed turnovers on five straight possessions. When ageless guard Jevon Carter buried a three-pointer with 3:49 left, the West Virginia lead was 17 points at 38-21. Halftime: West Virginia 48, Kentucky 33.

Just below my press seat atop the lower section, four Kentucky fans heeded the announcement beer concessions would close at the end of the half and quickly left on a run. They returned with full plastic cups only to see UK fail to get the ball in-bounds to start the second half, committing a five-second violation. You felt sorry for the fans. One last round wasn’t going to be enough.

Then things changed. Boy, did they change. Knox kept scoring while West Virginia stopped. Kentucky kept making free throws. The tide turned. The Cats turned tough. Instead of applying their signature defensive pressure, the Mountaineers started feeling the pressure on offense. UK crashed the glass while WVU wilted.

Two stats: Kentucky was a perfect 18-for-18 from the foul line in the second half. Kentucky grabbed 13 offensive rebounds to West Virginia’s four defensive rebounds in the second half.

“GAB-ree-el, whatever his name is,” said Huggins, mispronouncing the name of sophomore Wenyen Gabriel. “We couldn’t keep him off the glass.”

And just like that UK had executed its biggest comeback win from a halftime deficit since being down 16 (32-16) to Louisville at Freedom Hall on Dec. 18, 2004, only to rally for a 60-58 victory when Patrick Sparks sank three free throws inside the final second.

“They manhandled our forwards,” said Huggins.

“Manhandled” was the description Calipari used to describe his team after losses at Tennessee and South Carolina. But maybe that was the old Kentucky, or the young Kentucky. Maybe there’s a new Kentucky, the one we saw Saturday night, the one that appeared to grow up right before our very eyes.

Said Knox, “We just kept telling each other, ‘This is our night.’”

And Big Blue Nation could say, finally, “That’s our team.”

Next game

Vanderbilt at Kentucky

9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader