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Keldon Johnson embracing the challenge of being UK’s go-to player

Johnson has been thriving in the lead role for Kentucky.

Drew Brown - Sea of Blue

Keldon Johnson was full of smiles and high fives as he skipped into a victorious Kentucky Wildcats locker room following a 80-72 win over ninth-ranked North Carolina on Saturday.

Johnson, of course, had a lot to be happy about after scoring 23 points, including four three-pointers to cement his status as UK’s “go-to guy” and team leader this season.

“It’s definitely a big win I think, but I mean, it was a great game,” said Johnson as he sat in the media room with his friend and roommate, Tyler Herro. “I think we came out and was very aggressive and just played all phases like in practice. It’s just a big-time win.”

No doubt that part of Johnson’s post-game jubilation is the fact that Kentucky’s offense is finally starting to take shape. As advertised, UK Coach John Calipari inserted a few new “tweaks” with a heavy emphasis on “willing passers” and more clearly defined roles that point directly to Johnson, who leads the team in scoring at 16.1 points per game.

“We definitely just been working on passes,” said Johnson. “While we’re doing that, you see our assists goes up and everybody’s happy. Everybody’s jumping with joy.”

The 6-foot-6 wing player has twice been named the SEC Freshman of the Week and is currently projected as a lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Ranked No. 13 overall as a senior out of Oak Hill Academy, he was selected this pre-season as one of 20 candidates for the 2019 Julius Erving Award, which honors the nation’s best small forwards.

Johnson has scored in double figures in all but one game this season (a nine-point effort in a win against VMI on November 18th). He also leads the Cats in minutes played (32.0) and has the highest three-point percentage among all perimeter players at 44 percent.

On Saturday against North Carolina, Johnson continued to hit big shots, including back-to-back three pointers in the second half to stop any momentum from the Tar Heels. He also was on the receiving end of an alley-oop pass from Herro that resulted in the lay-up to push the lead to 75-65 with 3:53 left to seal the victory.

“He’s making shots and making plays,” said Calipari on the post-game radio show with Tom Leach. “He’s not defending to the level that he needs to defend. There are spots in the game where he loses focus…I don’t know if he gets tired…but he loses focus and that – you know, he gave up three three’s – come on man – make the guy drive – if you let him stand there and shoot he’s going to make it.”

Kentucky, 9-2, will close out 2018 with its annual rivalry game against Louisville on December 29th at the Yum Center. And Johnson knows exactly what this next one means to a rabid fan base.

“Just go out there and take care of business,” said Johnson of his approach to playing the in-state Cardinals. “I think we’ll come out with the same mindset of just wanting to win. That’s what we do.”