It's probably unrealistic to expect Kentucky to reprise the big road victory against Ole Miss earlier this week with a flawless victory 1,000 miles away in College Station versus Texas A&M. With that in mind, this postmortem will be less about what UK did wrong than what they did right in a tough situation under pressure.
Congratulations to the Texas A&M Aggies on a fine effort. TAMU has had an up and down introduction into the SEC, doing what only two teams can claim in the last 3 + years -- winning a game over Kentucky in Rupp Arena.
Tonight at home, the Aggies worked hard, they turned Kentucky over with pressure, they got offensive rebounds and they struggled to score, as they often do. But they never gave up, never said die, and they took Kentucky to the brink of defeat. Yes, they forced Wildcat fans to look into the abyss of a third SEC loss, but that was all.
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I could go on and on about the bad in this game -- the turnovers, the soft passes, the extremely poor decisions -- but I'm not going to. This Kentucky team has suffered enough indignities at the hands of demanding UK fans, and for once, I'm going to stop being the tough critic and put on my partisan hat, and talk mostly about the good things.
- The game ball isn't really close. A lot of people did good things, but the only guy who did good things almost every single time was Julius Mays. He was cool under pressure, he made his shots, he made his free throws, and he defended very well. 19 points on 5-8 shooting, 4-6 from the arc, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 2 turnovers. Game ball.
- Nerlens Noel had a good game, but his dominant defensive presence was off and on, and mostly off. Noel had a double-double with 19 points on 7-10 shooting, 14 rebounds (4 offensive), 3 assists, 1 steal, and only 2 blocks to go with 1 turnover. Really solid.
- Kyle Wiltjer had a good game, but not really as good as he should have. What he did do was defend extremely well for who he is, although not perfectly, as Alex Caruso's blowby for a dunk will attest. Still, Kyle continues to prove that he has become a major factor on this team. 10 points on 2-4 shooting, 1-2 from the arc, 5 rebounds 3 blocks, marred by a very unusual 6 turnovers.
- Ryan Harrow had a very shaky offensive game, but to his credit, he was very decent defensively. 8 points on 3-9 shooting, 2-5 from the arc, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal and 5 turnovers. Harrow spent the entire game looking uncomfortable and making soft passes that TAMU stole.
- Archie Goodwin had a quiet game for him, but played mostly under control. He did a very good defensive job on Elston Turner when he was guarding him, and he wasn't the turnover machine we are used to. In fact, Archie had exactly 1 turnover, and I don't remember a game where that was the case since ... ever. 4-10 shooting, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and 4 fouls.
- Alex Poythress was a complete non-factor for most of the game, but down the stretch, he was really good. Big free throws, a couple of important rebounds and a critical 50/50 ball. 0-3 shooting 5-6 free throws, 4 rebounds and 1 turnover and 4 fouls in foul-limited minutes.
- Jarrod Polson did great in limited relief minutes, making a couple of free throws and getting a couple of rebounds. As always, Polson just gives a few minutes, but he always contributes.
- Willie Cauley-Stein played a couple of minutes, missed a couple of free throws and got a rebound. He should be back next game.
Look, this game was ugly and flawed, but what is beautiful about it is that Kentucky was a long way from home on the road against a team that had already beaten them, and they found a way to win the game. It was not pretty, but when I look at the 6-2 record under the circumstances, I could not be more pleased. The 'Cats did not waste their big victory in Oxford, Mississippi, but reprised it, and when the end of the season comes, the memory of this game will be about the fact that Kentucky could have lost it, but refused to do so.
I also liked some of the clutch play I saw out of this young team, even if a lot of it came from an older guy. Every one of them grew from this experience, and while I, like the rest of you, have criticisms, I'm going to swallow them for the nonce.
A win is a win. A win on the road is cause for celebration. Go, 'Cats!