LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) – You didn’t need James Bond to uncover the prime danger Kentucky faced in the Wildcats’ Southeastern Conference opener against Georgia Sunday night in Rupp Arena:
The Louisville Flu.
Too much celebration of the Wildcats’ 29-point victory over Louisville last Friday. Not enough emotional investment in defeating a Georgia team that won nine of its first 11 games and has regularly played Kentucky with vigor under coach Mark Fox.
Kenny Walker, the former UK all-American, told me the primary reason he came to Rupp on New Year’s Eve was to see how John Calipari’s young team handled being told how great they were against Louisville.
When I asked UK radio analyst Mike Pratt about the game outside the press room, Pratt said he was more interested in how Kentucky responded to success than he was with any tricks Georgia had for the Wildcats.
Walker, Pratt and anybody else who feared The Louisville Flu were correct -- even thought Fox strongly disagreed. It was absolutely in the house. The Wildcats (11-2) needed nearly 36 minutes to shake it (and to shake Georgia) before they eased to a 66-61 victory
“Somebody said after the Louisville game, ‘Do you think they’ll revert?’ “ Calipari said. “Guess what? They reverted.
“Every guy was trying to score. We had three ball-stoppers (guys not wanting to pass in the first half). Three guys guarding them? I’m shooting it anyway … that was as selfish as any of my teams have played in the first half. Until I watch the tape, I don’t know how we won this game.”
Calipari and Fox are pals. The next time they huddle they can debate the idea of a post-Louisville hangover for Kentucky. Understand that Fox bristled at the idea.
“That (Louisville) game wasn’t emotional,” Fox said. “They steam-rolled Louisville. They sat there and drank Gatorade in the second half. That game wasn’t emotional at all.”
Here is something nobody can debate: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander showed that the 24 points he hung on Louisville was no fluke. He followed up his career game with another near-career game, leading Kentucky with 21. A dozen of his points came at the line. He attacked the rim – again.
“You know what’s great about him?” Calipari said. “He’s coming off the bench and not saying anything (about not starting).”
The Wildcats won despite shooting only 31.5 percent and getting outscored in the paint, 34-22. Kentucky needed nearly 35 minutes to score 50 points after getting 49 in the second half against Louisville.
Contrast those ugly numbers with these two encouraging statistics:
Kentucky had only nine turnovers. And Georgia made two of 21 three-point shots. That means the Wildcats’ last two opponents have shot 5 for 46 from distance.
But make this note: This game was not easy. Calipari called his first timeout after only 157 seconds. That’s all the time it took for Kentucky to miss its first three shots, commit four fouls and trail, 6-0.
The Wildcats scrambled for a 12-10 lead, but failed to extend their advantage to more than a basket over the first 20 minutes.
Quade Green saved the Wildcats in the first half. He scored half of Kentucky’s 26 points. He was the only Kentucky played to make a shot from distance in the first 20 minutes and the Wildcats launched eight.
Green was the only Kentucky player to make more than half of his attempts in the first half, too. Kevin Knox did not make any, missing four. Ditto for Hamidou Diallo.
Fox failed to help his team. With Georgia ahead 27-22 and only 12.2 seconds left in the half, Fox roared at the officials over a whistle he did not appreciate. The Bulldogs were whistled for fouling Gilgeous-Alexander during a scrum under the Georgia basket.
Technical foul, a senseless one for Fox.
Two free throws for Gilgeous-Alexander for the foul. Two more for the technical foul on Fox.
Swish. Swish. Swish. Swish.
What irritated Fox? He said there were similar scrums on each end of the court that did not result in similar whistles.
(He said that before looking at a box score that showed Kentucky shot 38 free throws, 17 more than the visitors. “We lost by the game by five and we lost the free throw line by 14,” Fox said, crisply.)
Now it was 27-26. Now Calipari had time to gather his team in the locker room for 15 minutes of motivation and adjustments.
This was the major adjustment that Kentucky made. Gilgeous-Alexander and Diallo were more aggressive with the basketball. They combined for half of Kentucky’s 40 points in the second half.
The Wildcats trailed 44-39 with less than 12 minutes to play. Gilgeous-Alexander and Diallo scored UK’s next 10 points. Then it was a three-pointer by Gilgeous-Alexander with 4:39 left that put Kentucky ahead, 54-53. The Wildcats did not trail again.
“He smiles,” Calipari said. “Shai’s just playing.”
“He’s got good size,” Fox said. “He’s able to sustain his dribble.”On Wednesday the Wildcats will finally play their first road game. In fact, next week they will play two, starting at Louisiana State Wednesday before visiting Tennessee at 9 p.m. Saturday.
They’d better shake the Louisville Flu by then.
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