Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s win over UNC Greensboro

In addition to my column, three takeaways from Kentucky’s 78-61 to UNC Greensboro:

1. Kentucky beat a good team.

Not a great team. The Spartans are a mid-major, after all, defending champions of the Southern Conference. But Coach Wes Miller’s team is a good team. It very nearly stunned No. 4-seed Gonzaga in the first round of last season’s NCAA Tournament. Its lone loss this year was a six-point decision at LSU.

Pomeroy’s formula ranked the Spartans No. 64 heading into Saturday’s play. And the visitors held a 40-37 lead at the half. The last six games in which UK trailed at halftime, the Cats lost all six.

Not this time, however. UK held Greensboro to 21 second-half points. It outscored UNCG 22-4 over the game’s final 10:03, turning a 57-56 deficit into a 17-point win.

“They are an NCAA Tournament team,” said UK coach John Calipari afterward.

The Southern Conference is a one-bid league. Wofford, East Tennessee, Furman and Scott Padgett’s Samford will likely vie for SoCon honors. Furman beat Villanova 76-68, after all.

2. You get what you emphasize.

For Calipari, that has been defense. Through the first eight games of the season, he’s basically ignored Kentucky’s offense. We’re fine offensively, he kept saying. We need to get better defensively. That’s what we’re working on. Over and over again.

It looks like that is beginning to pay off.

Greensboro shot 27.8 percent the second half and 35.8 percent for the game. The Spartans scored two field goals in the game’s final 10:03 on Saturday. They averaged 0.862 points per possession.

That’s the fourth straight game UK has held its opponent under the 1.0 mark. After giving up 1.149 points per possession to the mad bombers from VMI, the Cats have allowed 0.861 to Tennessee State, 0.641 to poor Monmouth and now 0.862 to the Spartans.

As my colleague Jerry Tipton reported in his story, much of Saturday’s credit goes to freshman guard Ashton Hagans. Shortly after UNCG star Francis Alonso, the 6-foot-3 senior guard from Spain, scored 11 points in the first 3:49, UK changed defensive assignments. Hagans took Alonso, who after scoring 19 points in the first half, ran out of steam in the second half. He finished with just 22 points and did not score in the game’s final 16:09.

3. Keldon Johnson is a fighter.

UK’s freshman swingman went down hard trying to get a rebound with 3:17 left in the first half. “He looked like he got hit by a sniper,” Calipari, who had watched Johnson have to be taken to the locker room.

Later in the half, however, Johnson was back on the UK bench. At the start of the second half, he was back on the floor. He finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds. He hit both ends of a one-and-one from the foul line with 7:25 left to put UK up 60-57. He drove the right baseline for a jam with 6:33 remaining to make it 62-57. And he slammed home another drive with 5:55 left to make it 64-57 Cats.

“Keldon Johnson fought out there,” Calipari said afterward.

So what happened in the first half? After the game, Johnson said he rolled his left ankle, the same ankle he injured in high school. He said he got some treatment and then was good to go.

And now?

“It’s a little sore,” Johnson admitted. “But I’m fine.”

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