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John Calipari’s Cats are learning how to fight to win

Ashton Hagans (Photo by Chet White | UK Athletics)

By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer

As most of you know the Kentucky had a huge win on Saturday. To go down to Lubbock, Texas and play No. 18 Texas Tech in front of a packed arena full of crazy Red Raider fans, receive some questionable officiating calls down the stretch of regulation, have the game go into overtime after Kentucky missed the exact open shot it wanted for Immanuel Quickley in regulation and then pull out a 76-74 victory in overtime was a testament to the fact that this team is learning how to fight and how to win.

Mark Stoops told his Wildcats a story last season about boxers.  He said (paraphrasing), that some boxers get knocked down and they get up to fight, but only to fight. Other boxers get knocked down and they get up not only to fight, but fight to win. He went on to say that as a player you don’t just fight to fight, you fight to win.

That’s exactly what the Kentucky did against Texas Tech on Saturday night. They got back up after being knocked down and they fought not just to fight, they fought to win.

Kentucky benefited from so many big plays down the stretch by Nick Richards on the offensive end and Ashton Hagans on the defensive end. Time after time Nick Richards calmly sank free throws to hold off the Red Raiders while Ashton Hagans created havoc for the Red Raider offense. Any of those offensive and defensive plays could have been counted as a game winner.

But here is a little something interesting about that game that might be overlooked by some. Something about a play that occurred in the first half in that game that was, in my opinion, the game winner. In fact, to help set the stage for this let me add a quotation from John Calipari after the South Carolina loss.  “This is Division I, major college, power five. Every possession matters,” Calipari said.

He said that in reference to some poor play by his Wildcats during that South Carolina game that allowed the Gamecocks to come back and win on a 30-foot 3-point bank shot after Kentucky held a commanding lead in the first half.

So here’s why that quote matters for this game. Yes, Kentucky held a lead for much of the game and yes, the Wildcats had a lead going into the last couple of minutes of regulation and down the stretch in overtime only to see Texas Tech come back to tie the game. But the difference was in this game Kentucky played like every possession mattered. So much so that even in the first half, when the game was not on the line, every possession mattered. Even when you end up with 20 turnovers for the game, the other possessions matter that much more. You can’t have a throwaway possession — even if the best you can get out of it is a half-court shot.

Here’s what I mean. With five seconds left in the first half Kentucky trailed Texas Tech 34-31. Tyrese Maxey proceeded to hit a one handed floater in the lane to cut the Tech lead to 34-33. The Red Raiders then threw a long in bounds pass out of bounds with 1.6 seconds on the clock. Kentucky’s EJ Montgomery inbounded the ball to Immanuel Quickley as he circled near mid-court. Quickley caught the pass, took one dribble and heaved the ball toward the Cat’s basket. His shot went in right at the buzzer and the Wildcats celebrated a 36-34 lead on their way to the locker room. That five-point sequence, including the incredible 3-pointer by Quickley, sealed the game. Sure, Texas Tech made runs at Kentucky for the rest of the game but they never took the lead. They tied it up a couple of times but the Cats never flinched, they never gave in or gave up.

That five-point turnaround with five seconds to go in the half showed that UK wasn’t fighting to fight, they were fighting to win. They realized every possession mattered, they got an extra possession due to a Texas Tech turnover and with 1.6 seconds to play they made it count. In the first half. Before they knew the game would eventually go into overtime.

If Quickley doesn’t hit that half-court shot Kentucky doesn’t win that game. We can all talk about Nick Richards being five for five on free throws in overtime and Ashton Hagans defensive plays but without those three points from Quickley Kentucky still comes up one point short.

I realize that some may disagree with this assessment and say that the Cats could have made up that extra two points needed to win somewhere else during the first half or overtime – and that’s possible – but there is no guarantee that they would have. No guarantee like the one you get when a shot from half-court rattles in with no time left on the clock.

That type play – a half-court three pointer right before the half after an opponent’s turnover – is the kind of play that drives coaches crazy and makes players think about maybe it’s just not our day. As the game wears on little things like tipped balls that aren’t picked up, 92% free throw shooters that miss free throws down the stretch in overtime and the center for the other team hitting 100% of his free throws in overtime makes some players think back to the half-court shot after a turnover that went in and say, “maybe it’s not our day.”

So that, in my opinion, is fighting to win. Every possession matters. Even the ones that look like throwaways. You just never know when that half-court shot is going to go in and you never know when the shot you are shooting might be the game winner – even if you are shooting it right before half-time.

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