Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 65-61 loss to Kansas in the Champions Classic at the United Center on Tuesday night:
1. Come on, if you’re a Kentucky fan, even in a loss you had to be encouraged
Admit it: This had all the makings of a lead-pipe cinch of a blowout. Kentucky with all its youth. Kansas with all its experience. When with less than seven minutes into the first half on Tuesday night, Bill Self’s Jayhawks had jumped out to a 20-9 lead on John Calipari’s green team, you thought this late night was going to be one very long night.
But it wasn’t. Not at all. If Calipari wondered whether his team will fight, he found that out. Yes, it will. A resilient Kentucky fought back all night long, first from that 11-point deficit, then later from smaller but just as important deficits. The Cats tied the score at 28 with 6:18 left in the first half. They even seized the lead, 33-32, before trailing 34-33 at the half.
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In the second half, they fell behind 51-45 with 9:12 remaining and tied it at 51 with 6:46 left. They fell behind 61-57 with 2:10 remaining, and Kevin Knox scored inside to cut the lead to two points with 1:54 left on the clock. Even with eight seconds left, Sacha Killeya-Jones scored off a rebound to pull the Cats within two, 63-61.
That was as close as Kentucky would get. Kansas guard Devonte Graham, who didn't have a good night shooting the ball, making just three of 14 shots, hit two free throws with seven seconds left to seal the deal. The Jayhawks won by four points. Self called it a “great grind-it-out win.”
Still, on this night, you wouldn’t have blamed the losers for feeling like winners. They proved they could play with the No. 4 team in the nation. They proved they could take an early punch. They proved it on a big stage. And they proved it very early in their development as a young team.
2. Calipari leaves Chicago knowing he has another frontcourt player
It was one thing for Killeya-Jones to make a significant contribution in Kentucky’s 73-69 win over Vermont at Rupp Arena on Saturday. It was quite another for the 6-10 sophomore to come up so big against the No. 4 Jayhawks on Tuesday. Killeya-Jones did just that, scoring eight points and nine rebounds in 23 minutes.
“He just keeps getting better and better,” said Calipari, who added that Killeya-Jones was one of the youngest freshman in the country last season when the Chapel Hill native struggled and spent almost the entire second half of the season glued to the bench.
“I think Kentucky played eight McDonald’s All-Americans,” Self said when asked whether he was surprised by Jones. “If you’re a McDonald’s All-American, usually you can play. So no, I wasn’t surprised by Sacha.”
But maybe even Calipari is surprised to find that he has another option in his frontcourt. After all, center Nick Richards did grab nine rebounds in just 13 minutes, but the freshman scored just two points. PJ Washington, the 6-7 freshman forward, scored just two points, grabbed just two rebounds and turned it over four times in 24 minutes. Sophomore Wenyen Gabriel scored just thee points and grabbed just two rebounds in 18 minutes.
“(Killeya-Jones) has worked his butt off,” Knox said.
3. So, what was the difference in the game?
Yes, Kentucky was bashed on the boards in the first half, outrebounded 24-13 by the Jayhawks. Kansas had more offensive rebounds (15) than UK had total rebounds. But Kentucky turned that around in the second half and finished even on the boards in the final stats at 39-39. So that isn’t what cost UK the game.
UK made just three of 13 three-point shots for 23.1 percent. All of those belonged to Knox, who hit his first three, then missed his last three from beyond the arc. Hamidou Diallo was zero for three from three-point range. Quade Green missed his two three-point attempts. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Wenyen Gabriel each missed their one try.
But Kansas didn’t shoot he ball well either. The Jayhawks shot just 35.3 from the floor, including eight of 28 from three-point range. Besides Graham going three of 14 from the floor and one of six from three, Lagerald Vick was four of 13; Malik Newman was four of 14; Svi Mykhiliuk was seven of 18. And Kansas made just nine of 16 free throws. So shooting didn’t cost Kentucky the game.
Turnovers were the difference. Kansas committed 11. Kentucky committed 18. As Calipari said afterward, 13 of UK’s 18 turnovers belonged to four players. Gilgeous-Alexander committed six. Diallo committed four. Washington committed three. Calipari thought several turnovers were of the “I’m going to get mine” variety, but several were from careless, sloppy passes that come with youth.
Those can be fixed. If anything, Kansas’ 12 steals taught UK’s young players that you can’t just throw a lazy pass to the post, or a sloppy pass on the perimeter. Those end up going the other way for fast-break buckets. Quickly.
But that’s what freshmen do, Calipari said. Here’s something else good freshmen do: They learn.