By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky got off to a near perfect start by making its first five shots and then got a near perfect finish with an easy score by Tyler Herro and Ashton Hagans to wrap up a 71-58 win at Louisville Saturday.
Maybe it wasn’t easy, but it also was not a difficult win for UK in its first true road game because for the second straight game, the Cats got contributions from everyone.
The Wildcats turned 50-50 balls into about 90-10 balls because they got almost all of them. They dominated scoring in the paint. They shot 51 percent from the field and limited Louisville to 36 percent.
“It was good effort. It was a good fight,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said after the game. “It was a game you knew you had to come in and battle. It’s nice to be in games where the other teams has as much to lose as we do.”
I’m still not quite convinced that Louisville — a team in a major rebuilding mode — had as much to lose as Kentucky, a preseason top five team that already has two losses.
But getting this win one week after knocking off North Carolina 80-72 certainly has changed the whole direction of UK’s season and whole perception of a team that many wrote off after a 34-point loss to Duke to open the season.
“That Duke game was like being in a car crash,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “They are starting to get better. They are a totally different team and they are going to continue to get better.”
Yes they are and that’s happening because so many players are not only playing well but settling into roles. Is it a coincidence that happened as soon as Quade Green transferred? Maybe. Maybe not.
However, what has happened is that UK’s team chemistry seems in a good spot right now.
— Freshman Tyler Herro, just as he did against North Carolina, came up huge. He was 10-for-13 from the field, including 4-for-6 on 3-pointers, and had 24 points. His only real miscue came in the final 10 seconds of the first half when he took a quick 3 in transition and missed that allowed Louisville a late score. But he also had five rebounds, two steals, one block and one assists in 36 minutes. He was named the game’s MVP by the Bluegrass Sports Commission.
“He played and scored well but he also rebounded the ball,” Calipari said.
— Freshman Keldon Johnson got off to a slow start offensively but finished with 15 points on 5-for-13 shooting from the field and 4-for-4 at the foul line. He had seven rebounds, two assists and one steal.
— Freshman Ashton Hagans made five of 11 shots — and hit a big 17-foot shot in the second half to stop a Louisville comeback — to finish 11 points. Again, he was a defensive terror with 3 steals to go with three assists and two rebounds. If not limited to 24 minutes by foul trouble, his numbers would have been better. His only mistake came in the final minute when he nearly got into a confrontation with a Louisville player mouthing at him that sent Calipari into a tizzy-fit on the sideline.
“He called his own play and he went and scored a lay-up,” Calipari said. “This is becoming a player-driven team. Not empowered yet, but not driven by me now.”
— Sophomore PJ Washington scored “only” five points but he had a team-high eight rebounds, team-high four blocks, team-high three assists and one steal in 33 minutes that also included terrific defense on Louisville’s top scorer, Jordan Nwora. Nwora had 17 points but needed 17 shots to get them.
“PJ created for teammates and everybody talked about PJ (after his eight assists against North Carolina),” Calipari said. “If you are willing passers, you are going to create more for yourself. Not just in basketball but in life.”
Louisville’s top scorer, Christen Cunningham (20 points), blamed Louisville’s offense for the loss more than he credited UK.
“Kentucky had a good game plan but we didn’t play very poised. I thought we took quick shots. We just didn’t play very well on offense,” he said.
“They are a really talented team. it was hard sometimes getting in there. They have great shot blockers and definitely slowed us down. We didn’t really get the ball where we wanted it,” Nwora said.