By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
Learning how to win ugly. It’s a big step for any team – in any sport. It is a huge step for this UK Basketball team. It’s what championship teams do. Find a way to win. No matter the circumstances. Just find a way to win.
Earlier in the season UK couldn’t do it. They lost to an average Alabama team on the road on a night when they weren’t shooting well and couldn’t seem to find a way to win. They couldn’t get enough defensive stops to overcome an eight point deficit late in the second half.
Coach John Calipari, after the Alabama loss said, “I’ve got to give Alabama credit. Avery’s (Johnson) done a great job. These guys played their butts off and fought and did whatever they had to to win and celebrated and all the good stuff.”
In that game Alabama was the team playing hard. Alabama was the team that wanted it the most. That game was the SEC opener for UK. At that point in the season most of the guys on the team still didn’t know what they didn’t know. Now they do. They’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons during this eight game winning streak.
Saturday’s win against Florida on the road could have had the same result as the Alabama game. But it didn’t. It had some of the same elements that the Alabama game had. It was a SEC game in a hostile environment on the road. Prior to Saturday’s game John Calipari’s UK teams had a 4-5 record playing at Gainesville. Not a good sign.
It was a poor shooting night for a lot of players on the team. Also not a good sign. In fact it took a long time for anyone not named Herro to hit a shot beyond the 3-point line. The shooting was so ugly that PJ Washington, Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley and Jemarl Baker were a combined one for twelve from 3-point range.
It’s hard to win on the road on a bad shooting night. Only excellent defensive teams can do that. Teams that can hold their opponent to under 40%. Teams that can turn defense into offense. This Kentucky team is learning to be one of those teams.
In fact John Calipari said that this type of game is helping his players learn what they don’t know. He said, “I keep telling these guys there’s all kind of things you’ve got to learn in this part of the season. You’ve got to learn to play when you’re down. You’ve got to learn to finish games. You’ve got to make the tough plays. Well, there was a lot of that today.”
Experience is a great teacher and winning this game against Florida in O’Connell Center was another lesson in Championship Basketball 101.
Now the question is can the UK players take this lesson and use it to develop the confidence in future games to trust their coach, trust their teammates and follow the game plan by playing to their strengths? They have a terrific inside game. Florida’s coach Mike White agrees. He said after the game, “Their bigs did a terrific job of staying in front of the basketball, utilizing their length, both at the perimeter and the rim. We had some that were right there that just didn’t go for us, but the majority of our shots were contested. They were terrific defensively.”
Learn from that. Use it. Depend on it. UK plays terrific defense when they want to. Use defense as an offensive weapon when shots aren’t falling. Turn steals and defensive rebounds into fast break opportunities. Quit jacking up a bunch of three-point shots when they aren’t falling. Play defense and hit the boards. Take the ball to the basket and hit free throws.
It’s a learning process and fortunately the freshmen players seem to be getting the message. After the game Keldon Johnson said, “When we are not shooting well, just have to find ways to rebound, play defense, get the win.”
That’s progress. Acknowledging that the hard things, the not so glamorous things like boxing out and grabbing key rebounds, giving extra effort on defense, communicating with your teammates — all those things that Kentucky didn’t do in the Alabama loss — are the things that win ball games. That’s learning how to win ugly.
Every championship team has had to do it and if this team wants to reach that level it will be games like this one that will help them to get there.