For Christmas this year, Big Blue Nation got itself a basketball team.
The holidays came three days early for worrying Kentucky basketball fans, heads full of doubt after watching their favorites suffer that opening-night slashing at the hands of Duke. The perfectly-wrapped present wasn’t under the tree, however. It was on the floor of the United Center, where John Calipari’s Cats came through with a keepsake.
Keldon Johnson scored 21 points, Reid Travis added 20 and Ashton Hagans was a 94-foot menace, recording eight outrageous steals, as 19th-ranked Kentucky took down ninth-ranked North Carolina 80-72.
“I hope you guys have a better Christmas than I’m going to have,” cracked North Carolina Coach Roy Williams to open his postgame press conference.
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For Kentucky, this wasn’t just a win. This was a win over North Carolina. It was a win over a North Carolina that just a week earlier had recorded a 13-point victory over a Gonzaga that had beaten Duke in the finals of the Maul Invitational. Yes, the same Duke that mauled Kentucky 118-84 in the season opener that was the Champions Classic.
Player or coach or fan, doesn’t matter. A loss like that is hard to get over, much less forget. It would wreck the confidence of a team of steely veterans, much less Calipari’s yearly collection of talented but green beginners. And would give any fan base, but especially Kentucky’s fan base, genuine case for absolute concern.
Not that UK’s players heard all the questions. To hear them tell it, the noise out there among the faithful is something that’s way out there, far from the walls of the Wildcat Coal Lodge or the practice court of the Joe Craft Center
“The coaches do a great job of shielding us from that stuff,” freshman Tyler Herro said.
Then again, they don’t have to hear it. They could feel it in their bones. No college athlete likes to get beat, much less drummed by 34 points on a national stage against a marquee team in your introduction to college basketball.
Little doubt the Cats had improved since that jaw-dropping Nov. 6 night in Indianapolis. It was hard to know how much, however, given the quality of the post-Duke competition. And in their only other trek beyond the friendly confines of Rupp Arena, UK had dropped that overtime game to Seton Hall.
“We were up three with a minute and a half to go and lost,” Calipari said. “But we got better.”
Saturday, they proved it. Telling stat: North Carolina entered the game outrebounding opponents by an average of 14.1 per game. Best in the nation. By game’s end, UK had beaten the Heels on the glass by double digits.
“Effort,” replied Williams when asked for the difference.
Indeed, Kentucky just played harder than the Heels. Sense of urgency. That was true of Travis, who continually used his head and body to get prime position under the basket. It was true of PJ Washington, who scored 11 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and dished eight assists. It was true of Nick Richards, who came off the bench to grab five rebounds in not-quite 10 minutes.
It was true of Hagans, UK’s freshman guard who outplayed Carolina’s ballyhooed freshman guard Coby White. Don’t go by the box score, which showed Hagans with seven points and five turnovers. Go by his influence.
“I thought at times he dominated,” Williams said.
Since being dominated by Duke, Kentucky had something to prove, first and foremost to itself.
“This was a must-win for us,” said Tyler Herro, who scored 15 points. “How hard we’ve been working practice, it was important to finally see something pay off.”
And, of course, the Cats had something to prove to their fans. Hey, at his preview press conference on Thursday, Calipari talked about trying to teach his team lessons about the holidays beyond basketball.
“It’s not about gathering,” said the coach. “It’s about giving.”
Saturday was the best gift a doubting Kentucky basketball fan could receive.