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Kentucky grinds past North Carolina: 5 things we learned & postgame cheers

The Wildcats finally get a season-shifting win in a heated rivalry.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at North Carolina David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The season of college basketball finally felt whole as the Kentucky Wildcats traveled to the city of Chicago, IL to face a historical foe in the CBS Sports Classic. Awaiting John Calipari and his Wildcats were the North Carolina Tar Heels, fresh off an upset win over the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

Coming into the game, the Tar Heels were ranked as the ninth best team in the country compared to Kentucky’s 19th overall ranking. The Tar Heels were also two-point favorites to win the game.

However, against all odds, Kentucky one-upped North Carolina for a 80-72 victory en route to their ninth win of the season and their first over a Top-25 team.

A Grown Man’s Game

Reid Travis’s decision to transfer to Kentucky has arguably saved the Wildcats’ season. With sophomore center Nick Richards still struggling to find his place in the rotation, Travis immediately stepped in to anchor the team on offense.

On Saturday, his veteran leadership shined brightest in the first half as Travis compiled 16 points on just nine shots. He and sophomore forward PJ Washington worked beautifully back and forth in aid of Kentucky’s halftime lead.

Travis finished the game with 20 points, which was second only to Keldon Johnson’s 23. Going forward, Travis seems to be the Karl-Anthony Towns-type anchor this team will need.

The Third Coming

Calipari’s era of Kentucky point guards started with John Wall. Wall was a lightning-quick recruit who was also the fastest player in the country. A while later, a player of Wall’s caliber also played at Kentucky. De’Aaron Fox played in Kentucky blue with pride and took the Wildcats to the Elite Eight during his lone season with the team.

On Saturday, Ashton Hagans looked to take that step of past UK point guards. Hagans ran the team’s offense against a superior opponent while also shouldering the bulk of defensive responsibilities in Kentucky’s backcourt.

Hagans finished the game with seven points, four rebounds, three assists, seven steals, and three blocked shots.

With the departure of Quade Green, as well as the early-season struggles of Immanuel Quickley, Hagans has taken Kentucky’s PG role by the reigns. His command of the offense and overall leadership has Kentucky poised for success as the season rolls on.

Johnson Stays Hot

Another game, another offensive showing for young Keldon Johnson. His game-high 23 points were almost unbelievable when checking the box score. Johnson’s production on offense came free-flowing and efficient as any player on the floor.

His ability to shoot from outside, attack off the bounce and play defense on the opposite end makes him one Calipari has to be thrilled to have on his side.

Kentucky has many good players, but none have the upside and closer-ability of Johnson, and that becomes even more true as his supposed ‘weakness’ of shooting is suddenly becoming a strength.

No Sacrifice, No Victory

Throughout Kentucky's first ten games of the season, PJ Washington had multiple stints in which he was given the green light to lead Kentucky offensively. On Saturday, Kentucky’s favorable matchup was when Reid Travis was putting the ball in the hoop.

Most star players wouldn’t take a role-shift very well, especially in the United Center, but Washington did the opposite. The sophomore excelled in his playmaking role by dishing out four assists in the first half to go along with his six points and four rebounds.

Washington finished the game with a near triple-double, posting 11 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. He also had the chore of going up against UNC’s All-American forward Luke Maye. Washington’s poise and ability to be coached are a rare feature in today’s era of basketball, which is something Calipari should appreciate before the sophomore’s anticipated departure next summer.

Stay Humble

Kentucky’s play down the stretch of Saturday’s win was a special moment for both fans and the members of the team. Going into the game, all of the chatter surrounding Kentucky was about their lack of a signature win.

However, while the team put a stop to their criticism with the win, they will need to remain humble over the holiday. Next Saturday, a feisty Louisville Cardinals team will await them at the KFC Yum Center in one of the most hostile environments Kentucky will see this season.

Saturday’s win was a major success, but it’s best to not get too far ahead of the path they’re on.