By LARRY VAUGHT
For a team that was forgotten after it lost by 34 points to Duke to open the season and then basically written off by many after an overtime loss to Seton Hall, Kentucky certainly looked just fine Saturday in Chicago.
The Wildcats got their best overall team play of the year to beat North Carolina 80-72 for their first marquee win of the season and showed that writing them off in March could be a big mistake.
“We’re not the same team we were two weeks ago. It’s not even close. And hopefully two weeks from now we won’t be either,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said after the win. “We are getting better on how we play. I am proud of these guys. This was a good win.”
Yes it was and here’s why:
— Freshman Keldon Johnson had 16 of his 23 points in the second half and was 7-for-11 from the field. He continued the hot 3-point shooting he started the previous game against Utah by going 4-for-7 from 3-point range. He also had three assists and three steals.
— Senior Reid Travis had 16 points in the first half and finished with 20 points on 6-for-13 shooting from the field and 7-for-11 at the foul line. He also had six rebounds and three assists in 37 minutes.
“I have a beast now which I have not had,” Calipari said.
— Freshman Tyler Herro hit his first shot, then had some shooting struggles before coming to life in the second half. He finished with 15 points, five assists, four rebounds and one steal.
— Sophomore PJ Washington flirted with a triple-double as he finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and two blocks. He was 5-for-9 from the field and played 31 minutes. He played with the poise one would expect considering his experience and for my money it was his best overall game at UK.
— Sophomore Nick Richards only got to play 10 minutes but he had five rebounds and one block. He was active and engaged. The only reason he didn’t play more was because Travis was so good.
— Freshman Immanuel Quickley had two points, four rebounds and one assist in 15 minutes. However, he hit two free throws with 24 seconds left to ice the win.
— Freshman Ashton Hagans would have got my MVP vote. He only had seven points on 2-for-6 shooting from the field and 3-for-4 at the foul line. But he also had seven steals, four rebounds, three assists and three blocks in 31 minutes to more than offset five turnovers. He never quit moving — and didn’t let slightly twisting his ankle in the first half bother him — to become the first UK player with seven steals against a ranked opponent since John Pelphrey in 1990.
“It was competitive both ways. It was just two high level programs going against each other,” Travis said. “I got some easy ones to go early to keep us in the game and then other guys came up big. This was the first game where I really felt like it was a collective team effort with us all yelling at each other and leading.”
That was obvious immediately. Kentucky had perhaps its best half of the season when it took a 40-31 lead over the Tar Heels being 16 points (5-for-7 from the field, 5-for-8 at the foul line) from Reid Travis and a stat-stuffing six points, four rebounds, four assists and two blocks from PJ Washington. But UK’s best player was Ashton Hagans with his five points, three steals, two rebounds and one block along with his non-stop energy.
“Kentucky just played with more purpose and more sense of urgency,” CBS-TV analyst Clark Kellogg said.
“We have got a couple of guys playing with great energy on defense,” Calipari said during his halftime interview on CBS. “We have to be the team that rebounds the ball and goes. I like what we are doing offensively. Reid has been a beast.”