LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Forget for a moment the whole "deeper meaning" discussion and what a single game can mean for the next game and all that postgame analysis stuff.
This University of Kentucky basketball team's performance Saturday afternoon at No. 18 Tennessee was pretty darn impressive — especially for a team that has struggled the way Kentucky has for much of this season.
The name of this game was defense. Two weeks ago, Tennessee came into Rupp Arena and beat Kentucky by 11, taking control of the game after Kentucky led by 10 with 12 minutes to play. On Saturday, Kentucky (8-13, 7-7 SEC) intimidated Tennessee in an 70-55 victory that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.
In this game, Kentucky was the tougher team. It was the better team defensive team. It was the better rebounding team. The Vols, who came in averaging 80 points over their past four games, not only couldn’t get clean looks at the basket, they became so demoralized that it appeared they didn’t even want clean looks at the basket.
Some will say it was just a bad game for Tennessee, and it was. But Kentucky had a great deal to do with that. Tennessee shot fadeaways and contested jumpers and, over time, lost the will to challenge Kentucky’s defenders at the rim.
The Wildcats, conversely, got a spark from Davion Minsk making his first four 3-pointers, grabbed a double-digit lead, then played defense as if every possession was its last.
They were this dominant. The Wildcats went eight minutes without a field goal after Olivier Sarr put them up 20 with 12:10 to play. When they broke the long dry spell, they were still up 20.
"We’re running out of runway, but they’re starting to become the team that we wanted to see," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "... They’re getting better. I wish we were just halfway through the season, because they’re showing unbelievable growth."
The word of the day was "dagger." Calipari has been using that word all week. Who was going to throw the dagger? Who was going to make the big shot? Who was going to deliver at the free-throw line? Who was going to grab the big rebound?
The thing is, there’s more than one way to throw a dagger. Kentucky was dealing defensive daggers all afternoon. That’s how you make only six second-half field goals and still never get threatened against a top-20 team on the road.
"I keep talking daggers," Calipari said. "Olivier made two free throws and a jump hook. Those are daggers. The 3 by Devin (Askew), the rebound by Devin in traffic, those are daggers. The biggest thing is we’re a good defensive team. We learned a little bit from the last time playing them how you have to play them. We knew coming in it was going to be hand-to-hand combat and we didn’t back away. ... We came in here and did it. It’s one game. Now we keep going."
Kentucky got 16 points from Isaiah Jackson and 15 from Mintz. Sarr and Keion Brooks had 10 each, and Brooks added 14 rebounds to go with his scoring.
After shooting 60% in the first half, Kentucky shot just 21% in the second, but it didn’t matter. Tennessee could manage just seven field goals after halftime, and a couple of those came in the closing minute.
Offensively, Kentucky’s first half was what Calipari has been wanting. The Wildcats scored 14 fast-break points in the half, including 10 of their first 18. They slowed the tempo down in the second half after building the lead.
Tennessee shot only 32% for the game and went just 6 for 22 from 3-point range. Most of those shots were contested by Kentucky’s man-to-man defense, which was as good as it's been all season in the help defense department.
"We played team defense. We’re becoming a team; can you imagine?," Calipari said. "You know where we were four weeks ago. Every guy trying to get theirs. I think, in the last six games, ready? We have seven guys in double figures. And Jacob Toppin has 8 points a game. So you’ve got eight guys that are almost double figures. That’s a teeeeeeaaaaam! You’re not trying to get yours, we’re trying to do this together. I’ve been begging and talking. Sometimes you have to hit bottom before it gets better."
After the game, Calipari said he was happy with his players but that he never stopped believing in them.
"I told our guys after the game, even when they were playing bad, I believed in them," Calipari said. "... You just keep working with kids. They’re kids! You keep working with them. You hold them accountable, but you keep encouraging and coaching and challenging and getting them to think outside of their comfort zone. … I’m just going to keep doing what we’re doing. The kids are getting better."
Kentucky has three regular-season games left: at home Tuesday against Texas A&M and on Saturday against Florida, then a March 2 road trip to Ole Miss.
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