Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s win over Arkansas

Three takeaways from Kentucky’s come-from-behind 70-66 win over Arkansas on Tuesday night in Rupp Arena:

1. This time, anyway, the Cats found a way to dig out of a hole

Obviously, John Calipari’s young team did not take their Fayetteville visitors seriously enough. After all, the Razorbacks were just 5-9 in the SEC, having lost their last five games. And Kentucky had won its last six games over Mike Anderson’s club by an average of 17.3 points per triumph. All six victories had come by at least 14 points. With UK scheduled to visit Knoxville on Saturday for its second showdown with Tennessee, the fear was the Cats would overlook Arkansas.

And overlook they did. Kentucky committed 12 turnovers in the first half while forcing Arkansas into just one turnover. “I’ve never seen that before,” said UK Coach John Calipari, who compared his team’s play to that of the Washington Generals. You know, the same Washington Generals who always lose to the Harlem Globetrotters. It didn’t help matters that the same Arkansas that had shot 24.5 percent from three-point range in its five-game losing streak, made five of its 10 three-point attempts in the first 20 minutes.

The result was a 39-28 Arkansas lead at the halftime break. And it didn’t take long for Anderson’s club to extend the margin to 15 points just 1:40 into the second half when Desi Sills drilled a three-pointer to make it 45-30 Razorbacks. Surely “Upset Alert” was flashing across the bottom of the screen on one of ESPN’s networks.

Before Tuesday, Kentucky was 2-12 under Calipari when trailing by 11 or more points at the half. We can now update that to 3-12. It was the biggest halftime hole the Cats had been able to dig out of since that thrilling 83-76 win at West Virginia last season in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge in Morgantown. UK trailed by 15 at the half in that one before Kevin Knox put on a second-half show to lead Kentucky to the unexpected victory.

This Kentucky team is better than that Kentucky team, but it can’t afford to fall behind good teams when things get more serious in a couple of weeks, or even Saturday at Tennessee. It’s tougher to dig out of those holes.

2. Tyler Herro proves once again he has that dog in him

The UK freshman might not have been quite as spectacular as Knox was at WVU a year ago, but he did have himself a night. Herro was 9-of-10 from the floor, including 5-of-6 from the three three-point line, and 6-of-6 from the foul line on his way to a career-high 29 points. Had not Herro popped his way to 12 points in the first half, the Cats would have been looking up at a far greater deficit in the second half.

Afterward, Calipari said that while Herro scored a lot of points, he also gave up a lot of points. Herro had primary defensive responsibilities for Arkansas’ Isaiah Joe, a sharp-shooting freshman who scored 16 first-half points. Joe was 5-of-7 from the floor, including 4-of-5 from the three-point line. Cal said had he left Herro on Joe, the Razorback would have scored 46 points. (Herro disputed that in his postgame interview.) Instead, the UK coach put defensive specialist Ashton Hagans on the Arkansas guard, who became just an ordinary Joe in the second half to finish with 19 points.

Back to Herro. And his offense. And his swag. A couple of weeks ago, UK assistant coach Kenny Payne said Herro told him, “I’m a dog.” That’s a good thing. It means Herro loves to compete. And he does. He believes he’s good and doesn’t mind sharing that, even with the other team. After a made free throw, the TV cameras caught Herro turning to an Arkansas player and saying either “I’m money” or “I’m a bucket.” Either way, doesn’t matter. You get the message.

3. Now it’s on to Rocky Top

Late in his press conference, it seemed to dawn on Calipari that his team played its second straight game without starting forward Reid Travis, out with a sprained knee. He mockingly started asking if people knew, “We’ve got a guy not playing. Did you know that?” Yes, we know that. It just didn’t see to make much difference on Saturday when the Cats steamrolled Auburn 80-53. And Tuesday, Calipari got 15 rebounds and three blocked shots from Nick Richards in Travis’ absence.

Saturday’s visit to Tennessee is a different challenge, however. We’ll be writing more on this later, but Travis played a key role in the Cats’ 86-69 thumping of the then top-ranked Vols back on Feb. 16. His defense helped hold UT’s Grant Williams, the reigning SEC Player of the Year, to just four shots on the night. Williams made three of those shots. But he was not the factor he normally is for Rick Barnes’ team.

Expect Tennessee to be ready Saturday. The Vols took a tough two-point overtime loss at LSU on Saturday. They have a tough game on Wednesday night at Ole Miss. To have a shot at their second straight conference regular-season title — Tennessee tied with Auburn for the crown last year — the Vols will probably have to extract some revenge from the Cats on Saturday.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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