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Comeback Cats rally from 17 points down to knock off No. 7 West Virginia

Kentucky had a lot to celebrate when Saturday’s game ended. (Vicky Graff Photo)

By LARRY VAUGHT

Before the start of Saturday night’s game, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said he thought two things had to happen for Kentucky to play with No. 7 West Virginia.

“If Kentucky can limit the second chance points that West Virginia gets and be strong with the ball, then it has a chance,” said Bilas.

So what happened? Kentucky turned the ball over at a furious pace — 10 in 10 minutes. West Virginia didn’t have to dominate the boards because it had seven 3-pointers in the first half to take a 48-33 halftime lead.

That was UK’s biggest deficit of the season and there was no reason to think the Cats, who had already lost at South Carolina and Tennessee this season as well as at home to Florida, would do anything different in the second half.

Boy, was that logic wrong.

After falling behind by 18 points early in the second half, Kentucky DOMINATED the rest of the game to win 83-76 behind a phenomenal 34-point, seven-rebound performance from Kevin Knox.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said Friday it was not a big game unless UK won. After the game, the coach was downright shaggy that has young team had shown the toughness, fight and playmaking down the stretch it had lacked most of the year.

“It’s hard. It’s a tough place to win. This was a huge game for us because we won,” Calipari laughed and said. “I am proud of them. They know how I feel. I told them there was a spirit about you in the second half.”

Knox was the leader. He was 11-for-17 from the field, including 5-for-8 from 3-point range. But he drove to the basket with authority, took the contact and made shots. He had just one turnover in 35 minutes.

“Kevin Knox has been spectacular in this game,” Bilas said late in the game.

Knox said he just stayed aggressive.

“I mixed the game up. Went to the basket, got to the free throw line, hit some big shots. (The coaches) were on me about driving the basketball. Sometimes when they weren’t closing out I hit the shot. I kept playing aggressive, doing what they asked me to,” Knox said.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Vicky Graff Photo)

However, Calipari was just as happy that guards Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander played like true point guards the second half. Gilgeous-Alexander was awful early but had just one turnover the last 32 minutes. He finished with six points, five assists and five rebounds in 32 minutes. Green finished with eight points and four assists in 27 minutes.

Diallo had 13 points on 4-for-8 shooting along with three rebounds and two assists.

“I thought unforced turnovers in the first half killed us. They were tougher than us going to balls and they made some shots. But I told them we were in good shape. Just play,” Calipari said. “The second half our guards played for us. The biggest thing both Quade and Shai played the way you need point guards to play. You are not playing for you, you are playing for us.”

It helped that West Virginia quit making shots. The Mountaineers were just 11-for-34 overall (3-for-12 from 3-point range) the second half and that limited the opportunities they had to get into a full-court press that demoralized UK early in the game.

Kentucky used a 13-2 run to take a 58-56 lead and then didn’t wilt when Kentucky native James Bolden hit consecutive 3-pointers to put West Virginia in front 66-62 with 7:56 left.

“Right now instead of trying to cover up if this was a fight to keep from getting punched, Kentucky is looking to throw a haymaker,” Bilas said. “The young Cats are pounding the glass. There is a whole different look. It’s a confident group looking to attack now.”

They kept attacking, too. Knox hit a 3-pointer with 1:07 left to make it 77-74 UK. Nick Richards scored on a follow shot with 31.5 to go for a 79-74 lead. Green’s two free throws made it 81-74 with :20 left.

“This is one of the more improbable turnarounds I can remember. To come into this environment and be down 17 and come back …,” Bilas said. “Calipari has talked to his team about toughness and fighting. You just don’t come in here and outfight West Virginia and that is what Kentucky has done.”

Calipari admitted it was nice to see his team “growing up.” It was UK’s first win over a top 10 team — and only the second time in school history that UK won a true road game against a top 10 team when the Cats were unranked — and should silence talk about the Cats being a NCAA Tournament bubble team, especially with the SEC going 6-4 against the Big 12 in the SEC/Big East Challenge.

“These kids are so young. They have to know I am for them and with them and love them but I am going to hold you accountable and you have to hold yourself accountable. If you don’t, I will,” the coach said.

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  1. Our talent was on display tonight along with toughness, patience and confidence in the second half. I loved the fight our boys displayed and wish them many more victories this season – especially six in the NCAA tournament. How neat to see Knox discover Knox tonight!! This member of BBN is very proud of our young Cats!!

  2. Have already down loaded to my archive. Instant classic. If you turned away(and I know a lot did) that.s fine , It was hard to watch for a while, For those who watched every ##$$%$$# second like me. WooHoo

  3. Hey Mike what did you say yesterday, you just put your foot in the mouth. Cats prove your wrong. Go cats!

  4. I am sure you felt at halftime that this result was going to take place. I was ready to coach them to turn down the NIT invitation. Not one of us could have predicted this at halftime, but it was a miraculous recovery and Cal and the team deserve all the credit in the world. I am not ready to proclaim that this marks the turnaround in the season, but I am hopeful that this might be the case. Knox put the team on his back and carried them to this W, and he did finally play out of his mind. We just can’t get a consistent buy-in for 3 or more players in each game. PJ was predicted to take on the physical role of the team and he wilted faster than 7 day old roses in the vase. SKJ has to be giving more than he has been.

  5. Mike, not sure if you knew, but PJ was not playing because he hurt his knee not because of effort. Stay positive!!

  6. http://bigbluefans4uk.com/2017-18DataandWritings/SPREADSHEET_IMAGES/33_ANE_BY_GAME_GRAPH.png

    Is this a turn around? I think there are arguments on both sides. First, it is one game (WVU) and the comeback has happened 3 times in UK basketball history (a 1 in 1000 occurrence), so I would not hang my hat on this single game. However, look at the trend in the game to game activity since Vanderbilt’s arrival on the court. 3 straight games showing significant improvement. Offensively, Vanderbilt seems to be a train wreck, but defensively, and on the boards, the man is making a mark, more in each game than the last from my view.

    Many people have been saying for months that when Vanderbilt returns to action, it would make a difference, and I admit, I was not one of those people, and you can color me doubtful on that front. However, the results are what they are, and I am impressed and watching this very closely.

    In 2012, the team struggled more than most remember through the first half of the season, and starting with its 21st game, they took the quality of their play to a new level that they sustained for the final 20 games, and that new level carried that team to a championship. I described that as a “surge” by the 2012 team. Last night was this team’s 21st game. Are we beginning to witness this team’s surge, on top of the arrival of Vanderbilt?

    This is very possible. I will be watching the next three games for the following:

    1. Does this team man handle a very bad Vanderbilt team at Rupp, or do they dance around with the Commodores to a lackadaisical win?
    2. Does this team go to Missouri and control the game and environment as they did in the second half at West Virginia, or will they be a shrinking violet?
    3. Does this team deliver a measurable payback to Tennessee when they come into Rupp, of will they allow the Vols to have their own way with them like they did in Knoxville a few weeks ago?

    In my opinion, these next 3 games will be instrumental in answering the big question about whether we are watching a corner turning process.

  7. Good point professor.

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