Kentucky vs Kansas was viewed as one of the best games of this week's college hoops action, and boy did it live up to the hype.
The Cats and Jayhawks fought tooth and nail for 40 minutes as UK held the lead for much of the night, but the home team wasn't going to go quietly into the night. After the Cats took a 46-40 lead at halftime and led by as many as eight in the second half, the Jayhawks made their push and slowly chipped away at the lead while UK's offense went ice cold.
Once Kansas finally took the lead with five minutes to go, both teams would then trade leads for in a back-and-forth battle.
Wayne Selden Jr. hit a go-ahead three-pointer to give Kansas a 75-74 lead with a minute left, but Jamal Murray answered with a jumper of his own to give UK a 76-75 lead. Perry Ellis would then draw a foul on Skal Labissiere with nine seconds left, but hit just one of two to tie the game at 77-all.
The game would then go into overtime after Tyler Ulis lost the ball driving to the rack, and at that point, UK looked to be in big trouble as fouls had mounted up for UK to the point Marcus Lee and Derek Willis were out before Skal also fouled out in overtime while Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe was dealing with cramps.
That would be the case the Jayhawks would surge past the Cats for a 90-84 win in overtime. Though the loss stings, it was a great game by UK and a big step forward towards becoming the Final Four contender we all thought they would become.
Strong Starts Continue
Playing in as tough as an atmosphere as Allen Fieldhouse can often rattle opponents, especially early on in games. UK was able to handle the atmosphere and be composed the opening minutes of this game. Four different Cats scored within the first five minutes as the ball was moving well and no one was forcing up shots.
As bad as these young Cats looked at times on the road earlier this season, they looked like season vets in this one as they traded blow for blow with the Jayhawks early on and didn't back down.
This was also the fifth-straight game going back to the Auburn game that UK had a good first half, though this one was more due to their offense, whereas their defense had sparked their strong starts going back to the Auburn game.
It cannot be stressed enough how important strong starts on the road are, and it's good to these youngsters are learning that.
But Bench Was Helped Keep KU in it
If UK was going to win this game, they had to get much more contributions from their bench than they've gotten as of late. It didn't happen in the first half as KU's bench outscored UK's bench by a 15-2 margin. That kept the Jayhawks within striking distance, despite UK's 46-point outburst in what was arguably their best half of basketball offensively this season.
John Calipari likes to play a thin rotation, but UK still needs to get more out of the bench right now, especially to win in an environment like Kansas. That doesn't necessarily mean putting up points on the board, but getting those key rebounds and not being liabilities on defense as well.
Guys like Skal, Charles Matthews and Marcus Lee have to start doing more for these Cats to win big games away from Rupp Arena.
Briscoe Free-Throw Roller Coaster
The ups and downs of Isaiah Briscoe's free-throw shooting continued in this game. After hitting seven of his last 10 freebies coming into this game, Briscoe opened the game with four made free throws as he appeared to be solving his woes at the charity stripe.
But then Briscoe missed two straight and looked like he'd re-lost all of his confidence. Then he calmly sank two of his next three and looked to have it back...then missed three straight in overtime and killed any hope of a win in the extra period.
Briscoe has to find more of a groove in this area as it's critical for a guy like him to show he can be counted on in crunch time.
Skal Getting Tougher but Still a Non-Factor
While Skal Labissiere may not be putting up the points and rebounds we'd hope to be seeing this late in the season, he still continues to take baby steps of progress with his biggest weakness: toughness.
Wait for it, wait for it ... Skal. https://t.co/EZhHJ3AUer— Michael Whitlow (@MAWhitlow) January 31, 2016
Skal even hit a big jumper with under three to play that gave UK a 72-71 lead, then hit another one in overtime to tie the game as he showed an improved level of fight and toughness, but still has some work to do here as he was also out-muscled for several rebounds and loose balls.
The talented-but-raw freshman is making progress, even if it may not be at the rate UK needs it to be.
The talking heads can debate all they want about who really is the best point guard in America, but for the past few weeks, Tyler Ulis has been the best. That didn't change at Kansas as Ulis sliced and diced the Jayhawks to carry UK most of the contest.
Ulis scored or assisted on 13 of the Cats' first 19 field goals. He attacked the teeth of the Kansas defense throughout with no fear and was easily the best player on the court.
Tyler Ulis is so smooth pic.twitter.com/ujS55GahRM— Full Court Prez (@fullcourtprez) January 31, 2016
Kentucky's Tyler Ulis has scored or assisted on 11 of the Wildcats' 17 FGs. https://t.co/DLzYf0svyT— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) January 31, 2016
Tyler Ulis is fearless. https://t.co/bP9psktmbm— Dave Scott (@Finna_Go_HAM) January 31, 2016
He finished the night with a career-high 26 points on 11-of-19 shooting with eight assists and three steals. Watching Ulis is truly a joy, and it's something Kentucky fans need to cherish for the next two months as it's become clear Ulis need to make the NBA jump this year.
Ok...The Refs Stunk
I'm not one to make excuses about refereeing as, whether we realize it or not, the calls often end up being close to 50-50 by the time a game is over.
That wasn't the case here, at least in the second half/overtime. UK could not but a foul call regardless of how badly they were mauled going to the rim, while Kansas seemed to get the whistle any time a UK player even grazed them.
Kansas hit a three with 10:33 to play to cut UK's lead to two. Their next made field goal came with 4:02. KU was up three after that.— T.J. Walker (@TWalkerRivals) January 31, 2016
UK had their worst free-throw attempt differential in a game (-25) since March 2nd, 1997 against South Carolina (-29)— Corey Price (@coreyp08) January 31, 2016
It was sad really, and frankly, I can now see why Kansas always goes into March with such a good record/seed and ends up getting upset the first weekend.