Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s win at Ole Miss

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 80-76 win over Ole Miss at The Pavilion on Tuesday night:

1. Kentucky can’t overcome playing without Reid AND PJ

Playing without Reid Travis is one thing. Playing without Travis and PJ Washington is something else entirely as the Cats found out the first half on Tuesday. Travis, the grad transfer from Stanford, missed his fourth straight game with a sprained knee. And for the second straight game, Washington got into first half foul trouble.

Saturday at Tennessee, the sophomore picked up his second foul with 8:22 left in the first half. With Washington watching from the bench, the Cats watched the Vols open up a 37-24 lead. Even when Washington returned for the second half, he was held to 13 points on the afternoon as Tennessee rolled to a convincing 71-52 victory.

Tuesday night, Washington did it again. This time he was charged with his second foul at the 14:46 mark and spent the remainder of the first half sitting on the bench without a single point. And UK trailed 39-38 at the break, the third straight game in which the Cats started the second half facing a deficit.

Unlike at Tennessee, however, Washington returned and found his groove. The 6-foot-8 forward scored 13 points in the final 20 minutes, including three straight baskets during a stretch when the visitors turned a 56-56 tie into a 62-58 victory.

“He’s just a mature player for a sophomore,” said Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis afterward, who compared Washington to Tennessee star and reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams. “Only PJ might be a little tougher, because he’s taller.”

2. The ups and downs of a college basketball freshman

After making nine of 10 shots and scoring 29 points in UK’s comeback win over Arkansas, Tyler Herro suffered through a stinker at Tennessee. The freshman guard missed nine of his 11 shots, including all five of his three-point attempts. To add insult to injury, the television cameras caught him being chewed out by UK Coach John Caliapri during a TV timeout.

Meanwhile, after grabbing 17 rebounds in a win over Auburn and scoring 13 points in the victory over Arkansas, fellow freshman Keldon Johnson was just two of nine from the floor in the nightmare on Rocky Top. He was just one of five from three-point range and missed two of his four free throws. Afterward, Calipari said his freshmen were “intimidated” by the situation.

Tuesday night, different game, different story. Intent on getting the ball to the rim, Johnson scored a team-high 22 points, making nine of his 18 shots. He took just two three-pointers, hitting one. And Herro chipped in 20 points, making eight of 12 shots, including two of four from three-point range. He played 38 minutes without turning the ball over.

“Those freshmen wings are really good,” said Davis afterward.

Not that Calipari was completely pleased. At Tennessee, the coach criticized Herro for not listening to instructions. When asked if the Wisconsin native followed orders Tuesday, the UK coach said yes, but then pointed out a couple of unwise decisions Herro made near game’s end.

And not all UK fans were pleased either.

It’s Good Grief, Charlie Brown!

3. And it went down to the wire

Tuesday night’s win improved the Cats to 25-5 overall and 14-3 in the SEC. Tennessee’s 71-54 win over visiting Mississippi State improved the Vols to 15-2 in league play. LSU will try to go 15-2 on Wednesday night when the Tigers travel to Gainesville to take on the Gators in a 7 p.m. game on ESPN2. If LSU loses, then Tennessee would be all alone in first place with LSU and Kentucky tied for second.

The regular season ends Saturday. Tennessee is at Auburn for a noon game on ESPN. Kentucky plays host to Florida at 2 pm. On CBS. And LSU plays host to Vanderbilt at 8:30 p.m. on the SEC Network.

Right now, LSU has the upper hand for the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament thanks to its wins over Tennessee and Kentucky. If Tennessee and Kentucky end up tied, however, it becomes a lot more complicated. So complicated let’s not get into it until that actually happens.

More importantly, by beating Ole Miss, Calipari’s club surely stays in contention for a No. 1 seed. And if you don’t think there’s a difference between being a No. 1 seed and a No. 2 seed, then you haven’t read my Wednesday print column.

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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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