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.
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.