By LARRY VAUGHT
This will not be a birthday that Kentucky coach John Calipari wants to remember — even if Texas A&M students did sing “Happy Birthday” to him after the game.
For the first time in his nine years at UK, Kentucky lost a third straight game Saturday when it fell 85-74 at Texas A&M.
It wasn’t just that Kentucky lost again, it was that Kentucky seemed to lack effort way, way too often in the game. Texas A&M beat the Cats on fast breaks often and had 18 easy points on fast breaks. The Aggies also were able to get almost any shot they wanted in the second half, especially when they went on a 35-9 run in 10 minutes to wipe out a 30-26 Kentucky halftime lead.
At times it looked like Calipari — at age 59 — had more fire than any of his players.
“The last three or four possessions have been about as lazy as you can,” ESPN analyst Dan Dakich said about UK’s defense. “You do that against a talented team and you get blown out of the gym. I just don’t buy Kentucky being young (as an excuse). You can play hard and with energy when you are young. As a whole, this team just does not do that.”
The score was only as close at the end because of a late 12-2 run by Kentucky after the game was well out of hand.
The Aggies dominated the second half when they scored FIFTY NINE points. Texas A&M was 20 of 30 from the field, including 7-for-9 on 3-pointers. They also got to the foul line 17 times and made 12.
Kentucky just wilted and had no defensive fight the second half.
“I am not saying they were flat, but they didn’t have the enthusiasm Texas A&M did (in the second half). You could just see that air come out of the Kentucky balloon,” UK Radio Network analyst Mike Pratt said after the game. “There were stretches in the second half when Kentucky looked like it had no rhythm. Kentucky was slow to react when they got punched in the nose.”
Kentucky got 19 points from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on 9-for-12 shooting. He also had eight assists and three rebounds.
Calipari said the freshman guard was the only player UK had playing well currently.
“He is by far our best player right now,” Calipari said.
Kevin Knox had 18 points on 7-for-15 shooting. He also had five rebounds and four assists. Hamidou Diallo, who was benched to start the second half, had 13 points — all in the second half.
But Texas A&M had five players with 12 or more points because it shredded UK’s defense the first 10 minutes in the second half.
“We played good the first half and the next thing you know we are down 15. Lot of defensive lapses. We have to figure out how to get stops on defense and get baskets on the offensive ends to avoid those runs,” Knox said.
Calipari said his players simply “let go of the rope” in the second half when A&M took over the game.
“All I am thinking about is how do I get these guys to play two halves like they did the first half,” Calipari said. “We just need a game where we play two halves and let winning take care of itself.”
The coach said he needed “extra timeouts” this game to try and stop A&M.
“I could have called a timeout every two minutes,” Calipari said. “I liked our first half. Thought maybe we were breaking through, then we just let go off the rope.
“What they did to us in the second half .. you can’t let lob dunk, lob dunk, lob dunk. You foul or something. Offensive rebounds, a couple of guys not into it. You have to want to fight and play. We had our chances and a couple of guys just didn’t fight. You can’t have the kind of breakdowns we are having. You can’t have a guy who if he has a couple of breakdowns he doesn’t have any fight. We just didn’t have it. You have to fight.”
Yes you do and Kentucky is going far too long every game not doing that — and it’s not just one player. Time after time Saturday Texas A&M players just ran past UK players in transition or made hustle plays to get rebounds and/or loose balls.
“They are more concerned with how they are playing and when they do that, it doesn’t look very good,” the Kentucky coach said. “When you are in that fighting mode, all that good stuff comes out. There is not enough trust there yet. It’s not just one guy. We have a bunch of guys not doing the stuff we need.”
That’s why Kentucky is now tied for sixth in the SEC with Mississippi State, Arkansas and Texas A&M at 6-6. Auburn leads the league at 10-2 while Tennessee and Florida are both 8-4. Alabama and Missouri are both 7-5.
Kentucky has to go to Auburn Wednesday and still has road games at Arkansas and Florida left. The Cats should not have to worry about falling into the bottom four of the SEC — which would mean playing on Wednesday in the SEC Tournament — but it seems unlikely hat UK will have a bye into the quarterfinals this year that goes to the top four teams in the SEC.
“I am not cracking, not wavering. Hate losing, can’t stand it,” Calipari said. “I just get back to work. That’s what I do.”
But this year there might be more work than a coach, even one as successful as Calipari has been, can do.