Calipari: This was a huge win for Kentucky basketball
Three takeaways from Kentucky’s thrilling come-from-behind 83-76 win at No. 7 West Virginia:
1. This changes the way you (and I) look at this Kentucky basketball team.
You can admit it. I’ll admit it. We didn’t give this Kentucky basketball team much of a chance in this sort of environment. It was College GameDay in Morgantown. The Cats were a 10-point underdog to the nation’s seventh-ranked team. How many times has Kentucky basketball been a 10-point underdog? At tipoff, it seemed like the entire state of West Virginia was crammed inside the West Virginia Coliseum, rocking and rolling, ready for a rout.
Besides, one of UK’s more glaring weaknesses (turnovers) is West Virginia’s most obvious strength (creating turnovers). And, as feared, the Cats started off turning it over and turning it over and turning it over. Next thing you know, Bob Huggins’ club was up 17 points. It was a 15-point West Virginia lead at halftime.
Who among us would have given this nearly all-freshmen Kentucky team a blue moon’s chance of coming back and winning this basketball game?
And yet that’s exactly what the Cats did, going on an incredible run to take a 58-56 lead. And when West Virginia went back in front 66-62, the Cats didn’t panic, went on an 8-2 run and jumped back in front 70-68.
A Hamidou Diallo drive at the 3:24 mark put the Cats in front 72-70. Two Kevin Knox free throws made it 74-70. And then WVU tied it at 74, Knox buried a three from the left corner to put the visitors ahead for good at 77-74. The final margin was seven.
Second half, Kentucky outrebounded West Virginia 29-13.
Second half, Kentucky went a perfect 18-for-18 from the foul line.
Second half, Kentucky was a team we had not seen all season, a team with spirit — John Calipari’s assessment — togetherness, fight and poise, a team that could actually do some damage come March. That is if, of course, they build off this performance.
What kind of performance? Down 48-33 at the half, this was UK’s biggest comeback from a halftime deficit for a win since Dec. 18, 2004, when Tubby Smith’s team trailed Louisville 32-16 at the half and rallied for a 60-58 win.
I have written that this Kentucky team looks like one that would be fortunate to get out of the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend, that a Sweet 16 berth is probably its ceiling. After this win in this venue against this team, I’m willing to adjust my view of this team. I’m guessing you are, too.
2. Kevin Knox was spectacular.
Kentucky’s highest-rated class of 2017 signee had played pretty well this season. Pretty well. He was the team’s leading scorer. He had scored 20 or more points on five occasions. He had shown flashes of possessing the potential to take over a game, but he hadn’t really taken over a game.
Saturday night, he took over the game. Knox was spectacular. He was 11 of 17 from the floor, five of eight from three-point range and seven of eight from the foul line for a career-high 34 points.
“He didn’t settle,” Calipari practically screamed in the postgame press conference after the game.
He did not. My knock on Knox was that too often he floated on the perimeter. Too often he avoided contact, almost flinching on his drives to the basket, content to take the pull-up jumper. Saturday night, he not only expanded his game, he looked natural in expanding game. It didn’t look forced.
Were it not for Knox’s 15 points in the first half, UK would have been looking at a much deeper hole at the intermission. In the second half, Knox hit big shot after big shot after big shot.
It was Knox’s three-pointer from the left corner at the 16:32 mark that started the Cats on that 19-2 run that tied the game at 56. It was Knox’s three that cut the WVU lead to 56-50. It was Knox’s dunk on a fast break that put UK up 58-56 at the 10:38 mark.
It was a Knox drive from the left wing that put Kentucky in front 70-68 with 5:08 remaining. And, as previously mentioned, it was Knox’s cold-blooded, dead-solid-prefect three from the left corner that put the Cats in front for good 77-74.
Afterward, some were comparing Knox’s performance to the one Malik Monk put on last season, scoring 47 points in that 103-101 Kentucky win over eventual national champion North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic.
In his postgame press conference, Huggins was saying what got him was that he had told his team not to leave Knox alone. Asked about some other aspect of the game, Huggins shook his head.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I kept looking to see where Knox was and if one of our bonehead’s got him.”
3. Because Kentucky won this game, this was a huge game.
That’s what Calipari said afterward. And that’s an old Calipari line. If you win a game like this, it was a huge win. If you lose a game like this, no big deal, go on to the next one.
And this wasn’t a March win. This wasn’t even a conference win, though it did give the SEC a 5-3 triumph over the Big 12, the first time the SEC has won this Challenge.
Still, even considering all of that, I asked Calipari how satisfying it was to see his young team respond in this way in this sort of environment?
“I’m proud of him,” he said. “They know how I feel. I told them, it was a spirit about you the second half. And that’s what we’re trying to get you to practice with so it becomes who they are.”
When South Carolina beat Kentucky in Columbia, USC Coach Frank Martin said the win didn’t mean anything if the Gamecocks didn’t follow up on it with another win. Same goes for Kentucky and this victory. The Cats have Vanderbilt at home Tuesday. They travel to Missouri next Saturday. They can’t afford to slip up and kill the momentum.
But then there was something that Huggins said, or nearly whispered, in his press conference.
“The truth of the matter is they’re just better than we are,” said the coach. “They’re more talented.”
Before Saturday, you and I would have taken issue with that statement. Not now.
P.S. Asked about the windbreaker he wore as a nod to his friend Huggins, Calipari said he might keep wearing it.
Kentucky men’s basketball 2017-18
vsMonmouth (New York)
vsUCLA (New Orleans)