Cats Take Sole Possession of 1st in SEC After Downing USC 85-69

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Cats Take Sole Possession of 1st in SEC After Downing USC 85-69

It’s been a month since Kentucky has faced a ranked opponent (Louisville, December 21), and that game ended up as a loss for the Cats.   We’ve seen this young team improve in several areas, but they’ve also continued to struggle with playing disciplined for a full 40 minutes.  Having South Carolina roll into Rupp Arena with a #24 ranking was timely.  The Cats needed another test before facing Kansas next weekend.

Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, their 2nd leading scorer, PJ Dozier, was unable to play due to back spasms.  But the Wildcats had bad news of their own when Mychal Mulder became ill and was unable to play.   And the bad news for the Cats didn’t stop there.  Freshman phenom, De’Aaron Fox, rolled his ankle early in the first half and left the game for good, having only played 8 minutes.   So what started as anticipation to see how the Cats would perform against a top 25 opponent quickly turned into a game of survival.

As it turned out, the Cats did indeed survive and retained their perfect record in the SEC, downing the Gamecocks 85-69.   Despite the absence of Mulder and the early departure of Fox, Kentucky managed to defeat the #1 defense in the conference.   The game wasn’t without some bumps along the way; frankly, there were several stretches of pure ugliness with unnecessary turnovers, and attempts to make “hero plays” instead of taking higher-percentage, albeit less exciting shots.  But it’s always good to learn lessons, especially if you get a victory as well.

So what did we learn?  Quite a bit, actually.  For example:

  • The 4 spot, which had been of great concern just a few short weeks ago, seems to have been solidified.  Wenyen Gabriel has literally blossomed in recent games, showing offensive prowess as well as great defensive presence.   While his 11 points and 5 rebounds aren’t superstar numbers, it was the countless other things he did that don’t show up on the stat sheet, like drawing charges and altering opponents’ shots.
  • Derek Willis can be a force.   Admittedly, there are games when he seems almost lost, but when he is focused and energized, Willis has the ability to be the “x factor” and make victories a lot easier to achieve.  Oh, and in case you missed it, Derek can also slam dunk with the best of them.

  • Having Fox on the floor makes UK’s offense flow much more smoothly.  That’s not exactly something new that we learned, but rather a fact that was highlighted last night.  What we did learn, though is Dominique Hawkins can run the point more than adequately.  As Coach Cal noted in his post-game remarks, Dom runs the point against Fox in practice every day, so putting him in Fox’s position turned out to be a simple, yet brilliant solution.
  • If we get the ball to Bam on the block, he knows how to score.  Again, this isn’t new information, but another fact that was proven yet again.

Make no mistake; the Cats still have lots of room for improvement in several areas.  Sindarius Thornwell had far too many uncontested shots (and too many trips to the free throw line).   Discipline on offense seems to evaporate too often, and a few of the Cats still prefer to attempt the spectacular instead of going for the less impressive, yet safer play.

All that said, there is much to like about how the Cats won.  They managed to figure things out with Fox on the bench.  They managed to survive Briscoe’s uncharacteristic 7 turnovers.  In short, they found a way to win against what had been the toughest defense in the conference.

In my book, an ugly win beats a pretty loss every day of the week.

Next game:  at Tennessee, Tuesday 9 pm

Follow me on Twitter @ForeverBigBlue

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Michele Brown
Michele Brown
Writer at since Feb. 2015 Co-host of Big Blue Views podcast. Mom, Christian, sports junkie, golf addict and speed typist. I can cook your mama's food better than she can.

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