Coach John Calipari had talked about Tuesday’s game being a matchup between “two desperate teams.” He had talked a lot about toughness and how the Cats needed to display that consistently. After being manhandled by Tennessee in the 2nd half of Saturday’s loss, Cal was using all the motivation he could to rally his troops.
Shortly before tipoff, word was spreading like wildfire that Quade Green had a back injury and would not be playing. It had already been announced that Tai Wynyard would be out for the game. Jarred Vanderbilt and Jamarl Baker were still out. In short, the Wildcats had 7 scholarship players available.
The Aggies were in desperate need of an SEC win after opening conference play 0-3, but finally were at full strength as D.J. Hogg returned after serving a 3-game suspension. Guard Admon Gilder also returned from injury. And the Aggies were truly desperate for a win.
Oh, and Doug Shows was on the officiating crew.
It would have been difficult to set a more challenging task for the Wildcats on this Tuesday evening. But it was time to see if the Cats had developed any of that toughness Cal had been imploring them to show.
In the end, it was the Cats who survived with a one-point victory in a game that had 12 lead changes, 14 ties, and neither team ever led by more than 6 points. When asked if his Cats had improved with the toughness aspect, Cal answered:
Toughness does not mean roughness. We’re getting closer but we’re not there yet.
He then went on to explain what he meant by toughness: being in the position to catch the ball, not getting beat by your man, not leaving a guy wide open for a three. Then he asked the media “Which player is always in a position to catch the ball at the right place?” After a second of silence, Larry Vaught spoke up and answered, “PJ Washington.” Cal’s response was, “See? Larry is smart. He’s the only one who was brave enough to give an answer. That is toughness! You guys (media) don’t watch the games so you don’t know (expletive deleted.)”
To Cal’s point, PJ Washington had a very solid game and seemingly picked up where he left off when cramps took him out of Saturday’s game. He finished the night with 16 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and zero turnovers in 32 minutes of play. PJ’s play earned high praise from Cal who said, “I told him, if a guy’s not doing what he should be doing, you have a right to tell him that.”
In a game that saw Brad Calipari play in the first half, 4 Cats scored in double digits and 4 Cats logged over 30 minutes of playing time. Kevin Knox seemed to start off well but was called for 2 quick fouls which sent him to the bench. But in the 2nd half, Knox found his groove and ended the contest with 15 points and was perfect from the field (5-5 FG, 2-2 3-pt) and was 3-4 from the line. Diallo (34 minutes) logged 18 points, 2 assists, and zero turnovers, while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander played 39 minutes and dropped in 16 points, grabbed 7 rebounds, and added 5 assists, 2 blocks, and 1 steal.
Yes, Kentucky did get a little shaky in the final 30 seconds and it seemed as if they would suffer a heartbreaking loss but they did just enough to finish on top, aided by some missed 3-pointers by the Aggies and getting some key rebounds.
Maybe toughness has not yet been fully achieved, but it’s clear the Cats are gradually getting the message. Will they still stumble along the way? Almost certainly. But if they can continue to find just enough toughness, especially that of the mental variety, to close out games like this, it should bode well for them as they move deeper into conference play. As Diallo said after the game:
When it came down to the end, like most of the games we are going to play in the SEC, it got tougher I feel, and we came out with the ‘W’. That was big for us.
I think it was pretty big for the fans, too. Let’s face it — ugly wins will always trump pretty losses.
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