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Was the road win against Georgia a turning point for John Calipari’s Cats?

Ashton Hagans (Vicky Graff Photo)

By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer

This first SEC Super Tuesday game of 2020 may having been a turning point for this Kentucky Wildcat’s Basketball Team. It had all the right elements to create a turning point. It was a night of either sink or swim. They faced a tough, athletic opponent in the Georgia Bulldogs on the road at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Georgia; a raucous crowd of Georgia fans; it was an ESPN nationally televised game with a potential Top Five NBA Draft choice in Anthony Edwards that spurned a scholarship offer from Kentucky to stay home and play in his home state of Georgia.

A sub-plot of this Super Tuesday matchup was the bad blood between the Bulldog fans and Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans. Hagans, from Cartersville, Georgia, originally committed to Georgia a couple of years ago before he de-committed and signed with Kentucky after Georgia fired then-Head Coach Mark Fox. The Georgia fans had not forgotten and booed Hagans continuously all night long whenever he touched the basketball.

Throw in some questionable officiating on the road, early foul trouble for key big man Nick Richards and uncharacteristically poor free throw shooting (when they actually were allowed to shoot free throws) by Kentucky and you had the perfect recipe for a basketball disaster.

Kentucky did not execute extremely well in the first half and dug themselves a six point hole at half time. The Georgia Bulldogs – led by super freshman Anthony Edwards – mocked the UK players during the first half by implying they were too small to defend him as he drove to the basket and scored over Tyrese Maxey and then celebrated all the way into the locker room after his team built a 37-31 lead at the half.

But, as what can generally happen when pretenders try to take the throne, Georgia began to see their first half bravado crumble as their shots began to draw iron instead of net and Kentucky began to methodically pound the Bulldogs in the paint, either in a half court set or in transition, and the Wildcats opened up a four to six point lead that they would not relinquish as both teams came down through the last eight minute stretch of the game.

Try as they might, the red clad Georgia faithful could not pull the Bulldogs over the hump and Kentucky created some defensive stops against Anthony Edwards, pulled down some key defensive rebounds and finished around the rim when they had to have a basket.

Tyrese Maxey led the offensive charge for Kentucky with 17 points and 8 rebounds but Immanuel Quickley, Nick Richards and Ashton Hagans also finished in double figures for the Wildcats.

So why might this be a turning point? Three reasons.

One, Nick Richards continues to play consistently well for Kentucky. In their first true road game in front of an extremely hostile crowd he once again came up big (no pun intended) in the second half. He controlled the paint area on offense and altered shots while grabbing key rebounds on defense. He once again played through foul trouble – including a very questionable flagrant 1 foul called in the first half – and helped seal the game at the end.

Two, Tyrese Maxey seems to be finally finding his niche on this team. He seems to have figured out that he is virtually unguardable when he drives to the basket because of his ability to finish shots from all angles with either hand – some while hanging in the air and some while being bumped by the opposing defensive player as he finishes off the backboard. In the last five games Maxey has scored 15 points or more four times. That’s a good sign for the future.

Three, how Kentucky won the game. It wasn’t a wire to wire win. They struggled. They struggled a lot. In fact, they didn’t take the lead for good until they reached the eight minute mark in the second half. To make matters worse they trailed by six points at halftime. This season that had not been a good omen for their chances at a win. The previous three times they had trailed at the half they lost all three. On the flip side, Georgia was 6-0 when leading at the half. Another not so good sign.

Fortunately for UK Fans these Wildcat players weren’t very good at reading signs Tuesday night. They continued to play hard  the entire game, fought through the adversity and finished the game against a good Georgia team. That’s something they weren’t able to do against Ohio State a couple of weeks ago.

Don’t get me wrong ,this is only one win in a long 18 game SEC season but it is a big step in the right direction. Some of the pieces appear to be fitting together better, Coach Calipari seems to have figured out that his best lineup includes three guards, Nate Sestina as a stretch four and Nick Richards playing the post.

That lineup, along with any quality minutes they can get from Brooks, Montgomery, Whitney and Juzang as backups, could allow this team to gain a little traction as they go through the SEC slate and head into the NCAA Tournament.

They are far from a finished product but are starting to show some signs of what some previously successful John Calipari teams have displayed — namely a point guard that is willing to lead and teammates that are willing  to fight. Throw in a little better shooting from the floor, continue the better team defense and great free throw shooting and John Calipari might have enough to compete in an NCAA Tournament that would appear to be wide open right now.

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