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Kentucky Basketball: Defense Leads to a Wild and Wonderful Offense

The Cats handled West Virginia’s press by limiting how often the Mountaineers could use it.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at West Virginia
Wenyen Gabriel gave the Cats a spark with 9 rebounds and 3 blocks off the bench.
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky battled back from 17 down for a momentous win over West Virginia Saturday night in Morgantown. UK finally got the signature win it so desperately needed after several near misses. In a season where Kentucky’s toughness has been relentlessly questioned, it is only fitting that grit and persistence on the defensive end of the court propelled the Cats to victory.

After scoring 83 points in just 66 possessions (1.26 points per possession), a lot of the focus after the game was rightfully on the offense. The Cats outscored West Virginia 50 to 28 in the second half.

They limited their turnovers to just five in the second half after struggling against the Mountaineers defensive pressure in the early going. Kevin Knox scored 34 points to break out of a scoring slump. But the defense deserves some credit for this victory too.

“Press Virginia’s” infamous full court press forced the Wildcats into playing at a much faster tempo than they were accustomed to. The speed of the game (35 possessions in the first half) and the toughness of West Virginia’s defense pressured UK into 11 first half turnovers and took the Wildcats out of any offensive rhythm.

A chart of Kentucky’s offensive outcomes during all 21 possessions where West Virginia employed its full court press.

Coach John Calipari was disappointed in his team’s ability to take care of the ball in the early going. Coach Cal said, ”I thought we—unforced turnovers in the first half killed us. I thought they were tougher than us going to balls. So you give them that.”

Kentucky came out looking a little more cool, calm, and collected in the second half, but they also saw a lot less of the full court press (only faced 7 full court possessions in the second half versus 21 in the first).

WVU only used the full court press seven times in the 2nd half.

In 31 second half possessions, the Wildcats scored 1.61 points per possession (PPP), including 1.29 PPP against the press. But UK held the Mountaineers to just 0.90 PPP in the 2nd half. Kentucky’s ability to frustrate WVU into contested shots and limit the Mountaineers to just 28 second half points relieved the pressure on the Wildcats’ offense and allowed them to establish the tempo.

West Virginia made just 11 second half shots and three made free throws versus the 16 made field goals and 9 made free throws from the first half. Fewer made shots translated into fewer opportunities to set up the full court press. The full court press, remember, is what gave Kentucky fits in the first half, and West Virginia wasn’t able to utilize its biggest strength as frequently as it would have liked while they watched the Cats run away with the game.

While the Wildcats backcourt handled the full court pressure significantly better in the final 30 minutes of the game than it did during the first 10 minutes, the flow of Kentucky’s offense was better when the Cats were able to dictate the tempo. While there were lots of elements to be proud of, the unsung hero of this game was Kentucky’s defense. Kentucky looked a lot more comfortable and was certainly a lot more efficient on offense in the second half, but not having to deal with the West Virginia press was a big reason why. This is a clear case where defense turned into offense.

And an incredible offensive display it was.