Following the first two-game losing streak in the John Calipari era at UK, the Cats got a huge 73-61 home win over Tennessee, which returned head coach Bruce Pearl from an eight-game suspension for various forms of run of the mill cheating.
Kentucky needed a big bounce back after consecutive heartbreaking losses to Mississippi and Florida, which dropped the Cats to #18 in the AP Top 25. They responded with an impressive, emotional win in front of an energized home crowd.
Here’s how they did it:
The Cats played loose and confident basketball, running the dribble drive offense to perfection. When all five players on the floor are looking to penetrate and dish on every possession, they are very, very difficult to defend. Even Harrellson and Vargas were putting the ball on the floor and attacking the goal. Kentucky demonstrated Tuesday night that if you have the personnel, the dribble drive can be incredibly effective. And this team, though possibly a player or two away from greatness, is glaring evidence of such personnel—UK’s core of Liggins, Jones, Lamb, Miller and Knight are a collection of gazelles who bound up and down the floor at pace that’s tough for any team in the nation to match.
DeAndre Liggins. We’ve been big fans of Liggins all year. He leads the team in minutes and intangibles, and is the undisputed defensive stalwart of the group. But too often he has become offensively meek in critical situations and failed to step up to take big shots. Not this time. Liggins tied a career high with 19 points, but it was his swagger and confidence that really set the tone. He consistently got into the lane and scored, and showed the kind of court vision that drew comparisons to Magic Johnson in his high school days. He also handled the rock a lot in the second half—it’s becoming clear that Liggins should have the ball in his hands when the clock is running down.
Offensive and defensive rebounding. Harrellson was a vacuum on the offensive glass once again, getting at least four garbage putbacks that seemed to just suck the life out of Tennessee. Perhaps more impressively, though, was the way Kentucky kept Tennessee off the offensive glass, where they normally excel. If UK can consistently rebound like that, they have a chance to make a postseason run.
Workhorse Jones, not superstar Jones. Terrence Jones played the kind of game that won’t be long remembered for a sensational dunk, jaw-dropping individual play or 30 points in the box score. But he did round out the stat sheet with an effort that involved hustle, unselfishness and non-stop physicality. Jones has the highest pro ceiling of anyone on this roster. But all-around games like Tuesday’s—10 points, 11 rebounds, 4 blocks, 2 assists—make Kentucky far more dynamic and dangerous.
Free throws. UK went 22 for 27 from the charity stripe. We don’t have the evidence in front of us, but we’re pretty sure that’s the best percentage a Calipari coached UK team has ever shot in a game where more than 20 foul shots were attempted. We won’t keep our fingers crossed for a repeat performance any time soon, but it was nice to see.
Bottom line: UK momentarily stopped the bleeding, but the wound is not shut. The Cats visit Memorial Coliseum in Nashville this weekend, which has never been an easy place to win. Win that game, and Kentucky has a chance to finish strong, as four of their last six are at Rupp. Despite the ups and downs of this season, a top 4 seed is still attainable, given Kentucky’s high RPI, strength of schedule and list of quality wins. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This team has yet to prove they can beat a good SEC team on the road.go back