By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — Sophomore Sacha Killeya-Jones has made a believer out of his teammates.
After basically being a non-factor for Kentucky last season, he was on the floor for the final minutes against both Vermont and Kansas. Against East Tennessee State University here Friday, UK coach John Calipari went to him early and his overall play helped Kentucky overcome an 18-8 deficit to win 78-61.
Killeya-Jones has figured out his niche — rebounding and defense. He had three rebounds and one steal in the first half and also hit a key 10-foot baseline shot to help start UK’s surge back from another early deficit.
“I think it emulated what he’s been doing in practice. He has had a couple good practices. For him to go out there and start showing some flashes is really good for our team. We know he can give out good minutes each game now,” teammate Wenyen Gabriel said.
“Sacha’s been great. He’s been great in practice. He’s been being a great leader. He’s been here for a year, so he knows what it takes. He went out on a big stage (against Kansas) and showed all the hard work that he’s been doing that has been paying off,” Hamidou Diallo said.
“We just need him to stay on that road and keep playing big for us. That’s really what we need from him and if he keeps doing that he’s going to be a great player.”
As freshman center Nick Richards continues to struggle with his defense and rebounding, it’s giving Killeya-Jones more and more chance to play. He was in for 17 minutes Friday and had eight rebounds, four points, three blocks and two steals.
“Sacha is doing better. He is trying. I am happy for him,” Calipari said. “It took him a year to understand it was not his ability, it was his energy. I am trying to convince the whole team of that. We have to be a defensive first team.”
Quade Green also silenced his doubters — for at least one game. He finished with 21 points and had 10 points in 2:27 in the first half to wipe out the early ETSU lead. He made his first five shots and finished 9-for-13 from the field, including 3-for-5 from 3-point range. He also had three assists and one steal.
He might not be the defender that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is, but this Kentucky team looks like it needs a scoring point guard and that’s Green. He’s a reliable 3-point shooter and UK needs that. Kevin Knox was 4-for-7 from 3-point range and had 17 points and 10 rebounds.
“Green was good. He gave them spark when they needed it. He played with lot of confidence. He is a good player,” ETSU coach Steve Forbes said. “Just watching them play, they need him to be aggressive like that at the point. He was great. He did a great job for them.”
“We need him to be aggressive and make jump shots,” Calipari said about Green.
The negatives for Kentucky — 3-for-15 from the foul line and 22 turnovers, including six each for P.J. Washington and Nick Richards.
“If we are going to give you the ball, you have to respect that. You can’t get turnovers,” Calipari said. “If you are doing that, I can’t give you the ball as much.”
Forbes said his team played “scrappy” and got to a lot of loose balls.
“We caught them at a good time coming off that emotional game at Kansas,” Forbes said. “They were right for the picking. But the second half they came out and defended like they were capable of defending. We just had a hard time scoring and they got it going.
“Their length is hard to deal with. You just can’t dribble at them and score. You have to drive it and kick it. To me their size, length and athleticism is what makes their defense so good. You don’t get clean looks (at the basket). They settled down. Let’s be real. They are young kids. They came off the big stage against Kansas and now are playing us. Give those kids credit.”
Calipari agreed with Forbes about a natural letdown after playing Kansas.
“I knew we would have a letdown after Kansas. It just shows they are not mature enough to figure out every game matters. When you do that, you just don’t look like very good players,” Calipari said.
Calipari also had a message for UK fans.
“Just enjoy it. I am the one dying. We have great kids. I am probably dragging them faster than they are capable of doing this. They are probably not ready for all that stuff but my job is prepare them for things they are not sure they can really do,” Calipari said. “What they find out is they can do way more than I thought we could do.
“But you have to have a desperation about your work. You have to spend some extra time on your own to build confidence and then get in game and do that. I don’t want to get frustrated. I did today because I thought they got selfish. I don’t know if they did or not.
“I said some stuff (in the locker room) after the game. Not mean stuff. I probably shouldn’t have, but I did.”